Sie sind auf Seite 1von 289

B e c o m i n g H u man

This page intentionally left blank

Beco mi ng Hum a n
The Matter of the Medieval Child



The University of Minnesota Press gratefully acknowledges financial assistance
provided for the publication of this book from the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada.

Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in

a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written
permission of the publisher.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press

111 Third Avenue South, Suite 290
Minneapolis, MN 55401–2520

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Mitchell, J. Allan (John Allan), 1971–
Becoming human : the matter of the medieval child / J. Allan Mitchell.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8166-8996-5 (hc: acid-free paper)
isbn 978-0-8166-8997-2 (pb: acid-free paper)
1. Children—Europe—History—To 1500. 2. Humanity—Social aspects—Europe—
History—To 1500. 3. Identity (Psychology)—Social aspects—Europe—History—To
1500. 4. Human body—Social aspects—Europe—History—To 1500. 5. Families—
Europe—History—To 1500. 6. Material culture—Europe—History—To 1500. 
7. Human ecology—Europe—History—To 1500. 8. Europe—Social life and
customs. 9. Civilization, medieval.
I. Title
hq792.e8m58 2014
306.85094090'01—dc23 2013037982

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

The University of Minnesota is an equal-opportunity educator and employer.

20 19 18 17 16 15 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Preface vii
Introduction xi

Being Born 1
Childish Things 59
The Mess 117
Epilogue 175

Notes 179
Index 237
This page intentionally left blank

In this book I move far outside any isolated subject. Readers will find
discussions of eggs, blood, medicine, alchemy, astrolabes, planets, play-
things, guilds, woodwork, tableware, recipes, etiquette, and multiple
literary genres. Ranging across forms, matters, and media, I try out new
approaches to a common set of questions: what does it take to sustain
life? How many material supports are enlisted beyond the human? The
aim is to reexamine intensive and extensive developments, embryonic
and infantile, marking the transition from conception through to early
childhood—some of which are thought to determine matters of life
and death long afterward. My main ambition is to think through how
apparently incommensurable things (mineral, vegetable, animal, hu-
man) coexist and connect in the medieval ecological imaginary. This
is to study how subjects and objects grow together within household
habitats, not always toward the ends they set for themselves, becoming
what they otherwise could not be, owing to their host environments,
cross-species entanglements, and technical enhancements. Training my
thoughts on those issues, I have experimented by working through the
heterochronic passages that are often held to divide historical periods
and disciplines. The line separating critical analysis and sheer fascination
has surely also been crossed. My focus on protean and exuberant “child-
ish things” will, I hope, go some way toward explaining the choice of an
exploratory, essayistic mode that ends up generating a kind of collage.
This book is not a monograph. The following essays represent a specu-
lative practice of peering over disciplinary hedgerows and trespassing

viii P R E FA C E

on other fields, and I hope that the results bear out my conviction that
the speculative need not be opposed to historicist or (in the best sense)
empiricist scholarship. Lived history is never unalloyed anyway.
I composed the book in mind of a mixed readership, specialists
and nonspecialists alike, and often foreground concepts and practical
issues that recur within and extend beyond the medieval period. Those
with an appetite for further historical or literary analysis will be able to
follow up references in the notes. Yet given the different interests and
backgrounds of potential readers, I should say something at the outset
about language. I draw on many works in translation, but some quota-
tions remain in the original Middle English. In this earlier form of the
language, spellings are not standardized but are subject to dialectal and
scribal variation, and so readers should be prepared to encounter differ-
ent versions of the same word (e.g., matiere and mater). For convenience,
I regularized spellings of u, v, and w (so that seruice becomes service,
and vyrk becomes wyrk), but I leave unchanged those that alternate
between i and y (e.g., dayly or humanyte). A few of the texts to which I
refer contain obsolete graphics, the thorn (þ) and yogh (ȝ). The simplest
way of indicating their phonetic values is to say that a thorn sounds
like the th in that, whereas the yogh is like the y in young and the soft g
in barge but may also take the place of gh in words like might, where it
would have sounded somewhat growly, as in the Scottish loch or German
Achtung. As a reading aid, I include glosses in square brackets and fur-
nished enough surrounding paraphrases to speed up comprehension
of quotations. Some difficult ones are translated in full. At the same
time, I wish to preserve the experience of reading the original prose
and poetry, the historical and linguistic differences of which—besides
promising uncommon pleasures, nuances, and cadences—should not
be missed in a study of material composition and complexity.
Speaking of composing, writing is in my experience an errant, tenta-
tive, interrupted movement toward new understanding, and it is a plea-
sure to acknowledge those who helped me with those passages. I extend
my appreciation to students and colleagues at the University of Victoria
and owe special thanks to Adrienne Williams Boyarin, Nick Bradley,
Erin Ellerbeck, Iain Higgins, Gary Kuchar, Stephen Ross, Nicole Shukin,
and Chris Teuton for expert guidance and camaraderie. My research
assistants, Danica Boyce, Gaelan Gilbert, and Alyssa McLeod, were
P R E FA C E ix

invaluable. Above all, I am grateful to Eileen Joy and Peter Schwenger for
their generous and discerning feedback on the completed manuscript.
Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel offered vital support and sage advice at key
points, and Myra Seaman was a source of regular encouragement and
numerous suggestions. Others who helped nurture the project directly or
indirectly—though they may not recognize or endorse the final results—
include Valerie Allen, Jane Bennett, Liza Blake, Brantley Bryant, Phil
Cook, Lisa Cooper, Holly Crocker, Becky Davis, Lowell Duckert, Lara
Farina, Melissa Furrow, Anne Harris, Jonathan Hsy, Dan Kline, Julia
Lupton, Nicola Masciandaro, Julie Orlemanski, Dan Remein, Kellie
Robertson, Eve Salisbury, Vance Smith, Ben Tilghman, Peter Travis,
and David Wallace. Many thanks to Will Robbins, Suzanne Akbari,
Alex Gillespie, and others for welcoming me to speak at the 2011 Canada
Chaucer Seminar at the University of Toronto; I am equally grateful
to Vin Nardizzi, Patricia Badir, and Robert Rouse for inviting me to
deliver the inaugural talk in the 2013–14 Oecologies Speaker Series at
the University of British Columbia. Other important test sites included
meetings of the New Chaucer Society, the BABEL Working Group, and
the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo.
Thanks to the several institutions on whose resources I have drawn:
the Bodleian Libraries, the Museum of London, the British Library, the
Wellcome Institute Library, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian
Institution. Funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada was essential to the realization of this book.
Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, in particular to Doug
Armato, Danielle Kasprzak, and the rest of the editorial team, for back-
ing the project.
I remain indebted to Maureen for all that matters. The following
chapters would have been unthinkable without the love and runaway en-
thusiasms of my children, Myles and Leo, to whom I dedicate the book.
This page intentionally left blank

In an astonishing passage about nativity and infancy located near the

beginning of his Confessions, Augustine meditates on his origins in the
impersonal and immemorial event of birth. He begins to confess, in
other words, where no autobiography is possible, and may be taken to
confess to the fault of not being able to produce one in the first place.
Reflecting on his derivation from something so foreign and forgotten
as being born introduces a sort of quietus at the center of his mortal
being. “For all I want to tell you, Lord, is that I do not know where I
came from when I was born into this life which leads to death—or
should I say, this death which leads to life [vitam mortalem an mortem
vitalem]? This much is hidden from me.”1 Others inform him about his
infancy, and he gleans more by observing the typical interactions of
parents and children. But as Augustine repeatedly declares, he cannot
recall himself (“non enim ego memini”).2 It is a startling admission in a
work that will go on to hymn the power of memory, the faculty of the
soul which recollects “my mind” that is “my self,”3 and is the guarantor
of personal identity. Nothing less than the ontology of the human is at
stake in failing to articulate this original issue. Human gestation and
maturation are passing stages that are as fundamental as they are fatal to
self-sufficiency, and dwelling on them is liable to surprise anyone who
assumes life is continuous, autonomous, and inalienable. What impresses
Augustine is how being eventuates from such a derelict state of becom-
ing. How does anyone survive the leap from insentient beginnings? “My
infancy is long since dead, yet I am still alive.” The implicit reference to


morphogenetic and metabolic process is figured rhetorically, as perhaps

it always must be, by means of antimetabole: vitam mortalem, mortem
vitalem. Augustine’s interest in the paradoxes of propagation leads him
to wonder further about when and how he came to be, and he pursues
the issue to the point that his having been anything at all is put radically
in question. Personal identity recedes from view:

Answer my prayer and tell me whether my infancy followed upon

some other stage of life that died before it. Was it the stage of life
that I spent in my mother’s womb? For I have learned a little about
that too, and I have myself seen women who were pregnant. But
what came before that, O God my Delight? Was I anywhere? Was
I anybody?

Augustine confronts a mystery that is also the mundane reality this book
sets out to explore: a barely animate and emergent creatureliness that
is nonetheless necessary for human flourishing. There is no originary
subject here, since the individual starts out as an anonymous array of
events among a constellation of others. There is no independent being,
as identity is precariously suspended in time and space. For Augustine,
as for many others since, the dilemma is that persons must really come
to an end—to begin—somewhere. Augustine’s awareness of the problem
of what amounts to a kind of vanishing origin is as acute and agoniz-
ing as it is generative, for he comes to see in the prehistory of himself a
death more final (because an event more primordial and inexpressible)
than any future passing that results in everlasting life. In reverse, that is,
the human is not eternal. Becoming is therefore a logical and logistical
issue with far-reaching metaphysical consequences: “Can it be that any
man has skill to fabricate himself?”4 In his initial inquiry, he has hit
upon a unique creaturely dependency and derivativeness, for it is just
the case that coming alive is not like crafting other things. One must
be factored out of the process of assembly. However much nativity and
infancy ground existence, they are in excess of human presence. Yet
there would be no future were it not for so many primordial, intestinal
involvements and intimacies that are not personal experiences but that
are essential material configurations of persons nevertheless. We can
eventually come to see how many other things, inanimate objects and

not just organisms, emerge from milieux that are not appropriate to
them either.
The germinal phases of a life are consequently fully historical events
that precede and exceed the limits of human history and consciousness,
underlining the failings of an autobiography that must be confessed.
“Autobiography becomes confession,” as Derrida says, “when the dis-
course on the self does not dissociate truth from an avowal, thus from
a fault, an evil, an ill.”5 Since gestation and growth elude that which they
generate, the human has no choice but to stand accused in the most per-
sonal way by an infantile oblivion, especially when that species so prizes
speech and self-knowledge. Genetic origins (ontogeny) threaten even
as they incubate every known identity (ontology), exemplifying a basic
conundrum posed by any talk of morphogenesis. It is a profound issue
with which medieval writers and practitioners of various kinds had to
wrestle, as this book will show, and the epistemological and ontological
risks of reproduction never go away. The issue has far-reaching conse-
quences for all organisms and objects, whose origins and ends may be
just as improper and whose boundaries are permeable. The temporality
and contingency of early human development have compelled think-
ers ever since to reckon with the problem in other spheres, dissolving
the human in an indifferent prepersonal materiality that is a pregnant
matrix. Reverse engineering the organism, embryology then (as now)
is about tracing a fluid and concatenating series of molecular events,
dynamic movements, viscosities and intensities, that may be missed only
because they result in such solid-seeming and species-marked entities.
The body consists of flows and counterflows and of so many substances
built up and broken down, incorporated and dispersed, confirming
that indeed—in words attributed to Origen of Alexandria—the body
is like a river.6 Flux is a mortal condition of the human individual, but
of course, we recognize that the flow sometimes thickens into discrete,
living things. Extended in time and space, they take individual forms
that claim our attention. Change is arrested long enough for persons
to form intimate attachments. But individuation and intimacy point us
back to interdependency again, each and every relatively distinct subject
or object suspended like the yoke in the albumen of a developing ovum,
never one without the other.
The stark facticity of human generation and growth is an almost

irresistible stimulus to radical thought about the general conditions

of being and becoming, and modern thinkers—at least since Hegel
described his age as the “birth-time” of spirit in the Phenomenology
of Spirit—have thrilled to the prospects such events afford theories of
immanence, consciousness, language, and the subject. Hannah Arendt
coined the term natality to describe the new beginnings wrought by
human action, which “disrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily
life.”7 Jean-Luc Nancy sets out on a series of Hegelian (and, for that
matter, neo-Augustinian) meditations in The Birth to Presence with the
inaugural remark, “To be born is not to have been born and to have been
born. . . . The I will not have preexisted birth, nor will it emerge from
birth, either; it will be born to its own death.”8 He elucidates the singular
event that forever delivers a person, without capability or consent, into
the world. Birth is the paradigm case of existence for Alphonso Lingis,
who begins The First Person Singular by pondering generation and its
aftereffects: “Out of millions of spermatozoa repeatedly ejected into a
vagina, this one, thrashing blindly, caught hold of an ovum and it swelled
and divided. One day I was born. . . . Beneath me, behind me, there is
nothing that demanded me, required this I.”9 Elsewhere he remarks on
the existential implications: “To be born is not to be cast into the im-
manence of nothingness but to find oneself in a sustaining medium.”10
Claude Romano and Quentin Meillassoux both in different ways find in
the generation of life from lifeless matter a master trope for the idea of
the “advent,” begetting radical novelty—in the latter case, no less than a
messianic future embodied by what Meillassoux calls the Child.11 And
in the psychoanalytic theory of Bracha Ettinger, the prenatal phase and
parturition open up the possibility of a “matrixial” model of coemergent
identities and transsubjectivity. Birth points to an embodied awareness
of the primordial indistinction of subjects and objects, I and non-I.12 I
will return to some of these theorists later, but for now, I just want to
emphasize that in assorted modern instances, if we are permitted to
generalize, biological reproduction is paradoxically an extinction that
precipitates the real novelty of existence (constituting a life cycle in the
first place), prompting explorations of the limit cases, infinite regresses,
groundless recesses, and unwarranted gratuitousness of my being here
at all. Generation of whatever organism is not only the creation but also
the dislocation, if not destruction, of a self-sovereign subject. Such an

event consists of the minimal conditions of the originality of being a

lively creature, even as it amounts to maximal life prior to individua-
tion of the human, representing a peak period of thriving from which
all subsequent forms are fallings off. On one hand, then, generation is
the onset of something gradual and epigenetic, an invagination without
which there would be no evolution and individuation. On the other
hand, human propagation is an astonishing and immediate irruption
of something vital bounding out of abyssal matter. This is perhaps a
contradiction, but it is an intensely fecund one that everyone lives with.
It represents both continuity and discontinuity within the same somatic
and eventually biosocial plane of existence. In either case, generation
has ramifications for how we conceive of everything growing afterward.
Reproduction scarcely leads to solipsistic or nihilistic imaginings and
naturally eschews isolationism. Dwelling on the sustaining medium of
life is an opening to others: a promise of intercorporal conviviality and
What I am interested in sketching here, then, is a story of homini-
zation without homogenization in the Middle Ages, which means that
this book could never be confined to the human species alone. It must
address morphogenesis within manifold settings. The following essays
conduct a historical inquiry into the various ways subjects and objects
are entangled and environed, arguing that human identity was articulat-
ed and extended across a range of textual, visual, and artifactual assem-
blages. My inquiry takes its bearings from disparate disciplines, animal
lives, artifacts, and practices, focusing wherever possible on alternative
vectors of becoming from about the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries.
To appreciate the exigency of the matter requires recovering ideas about
the elemental, protean, chaotic substrata of the world, compelling us
to reckon again with the fluid and futural conditions of coming-to-be
vegetable, animal, and human. So part of the work requires returning
to seminal engagements with the provenance and propagation of the
living universe—which found renewed stimulus in Aristotle’s works and
in Plato’s Timaeus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. My discussion will return
to a time when concerns with embodiment, emergency, and ecology
were being generated and debated in early discourses on the ovum—the
cosmic egg of the cosmologists, the philosopher’s egg of alchemists, and
animal eggs and embryos of the scientists and medical practitioners.

Emerging out of these contexts, humans will become caught up in a

range of assemblages ever after. We witness the extent to which human-
ity coexists and coordinates with such diverse phenomena as planets,
tides, metals, weather, food, blood, birds, pearls, toys, tableware, armor,
and books. Mobilizing such notions as epigenesis, delayed animation,
neoteny, chaos, alchemy, virtuality, play, enjoyment, consumption, and
digestion, I attempt to rediscover the ontogenetic possibilities before they
become bounded, bundled, propertied things. But I am also interested
in subsisting identities and the properties of things, and so the study
is equally dedicated to the morphology of concrete individuals, given
their transience and mortality. For we mourn singular instants—a lover’s
caress, a noble specimen, the most exquisite work—just because they
are final, irreparable events. Mainly I attend to textual and artifactual
evidence circulating in and beyond medieval England, but any number
of places may turn up useful insights about collective life.
But why should anyone take an interest in early and seemingly
outmoded social practices, quasi-scientific theories, and low-tech de-
velopments from the Middle Ages? There are good reasons to take up
exactly these concerns in and outside of medieval studies today, engaging
wider discussions of ecology and ethics across the disciplines, especially
given the lack of a longer historical perspective in many quarters. In
response to rapid technological changes, planetary ecological crises,
and a sense of the ethical and political bankruptcy of traditional forms
of humanism, thinkers today are increasingly worried about our collec-
tive fate. Novel configurations of the human (including the post- and
transhuman) are emerging in the new millennium to cope with what
have been diagnosed as lethal states of possessive individualism and
human exceptionalism. Not everyone agrees on the best ways forward.
But if humanity remains, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote some time
ago, “a historical idea and not a natural species,”13 we must not fail
to look back to the past for futures to come. And so we can begin to
ask, are there historical precedents for the present impasse? What, if
anything, has already been done to define and defend against the situ-
ation? What was life like before, say, the advent of late capitalism? Some
will still wince at the suggestion that medieval studies could possibly
address such ultramodern conditions as global finance, genetic engi-
neering, and environmental catastrophe, reflexively assuming that the

period is too remote and undeveloped to be relevant, but that sense of

superiority—to insist on a point made so memorably in Bruno Latour’s
We Have Never Been Modern—is a symptom of the modern malaise.14
The notion of having progressed beyond the premodern and the primi-
tive is grounded in a strict partitioning of human and nonhuman beings,
so closely linked are ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism. The Middle
Ages regularly falls victim to the twin anachronisms and is conscripted
to sustain such polarities. There is rather more consensus than is often
acknowledged today about where the future of the human lies. It is not
supposed to be so archaic. This book stands to upset any complacent
acceptance of our times (including laminar time), exploring how those
in the past forged ideas of human affiliation and assemblage between
a plethora of things, imagining novel ensembles. A range of medieval
ideas and practices register how humanity is articulated and reticulated
in a universe of plants, animals, and a welter of other things. Such are
the novelty and futurity of becoming human that seem so difficult—and
necessary—to capture. The premodern advantage, we might say, partly
derives from the way moderns tend to think humanity was not fully
realized then, being premature, naive, uncouth, undercapitalized, so far
removed from present-day concerns. Though specious to the extreme,
ideas of a premodern aetus puerorum can serve as polite fictions sug-
gesting that the medieval belongs to a collective prehistory. In fact, this
book draws on evidence from a period that arguably engendered several
recognizable features of modernity: the twelfth through the fifteenth
centuries are variously credited with the rise of scientific naturalism,
social mobility and money economy, state power and nationalism, lay
literacy and vernacularization.15 Indeed, the “legitimacy” of the Middle
Ages comes from having adumbrated the structures of thought and feel-
ing that determine everything from commodity fetishism to terrorism.
Perhaps “We Have Always Been Medieval.”16 Those are not driving theses
of this book, but they point to debates standing behind what I will have
to say about medieval medicine, markets, language, technology, and so
on, and should remind us that the past is liable to comprehend not just
its own events but also our eventualities (i.e., global, capital, digital,
ecological futures). To that end, we must begin, as I have urged in other
places, by distinguishing the obsolete time of chronicle (Historie) from
a less perishable temporality of lived existence (Geschichte), detecting

in the past the futurity of events to come. On this understanding of

historicity, the past passes before us now and has not yet, in all cases,
fully developed or concluded. Nor should we forget that the medieval
and modern, on geological time scales that matter, are situated well
within the same Anthropocene epoch.
Those are some of the reasons for seeking to show where and how
the human was fleshed out in microcosmic and macrocosmic modes
less terminal, teleological, and tendentious than commonly assumed
today. On the basis of evidence from everything from embryology to
cosmology and the mundane spheres of child’s play, table manners,
and imaginative fiction, we can begin to see that anthropocentrism has
not always been an inevitable mode of self-understanding. Nor need
it be now. Even where the human appears to reign over or regulate
others, there are numerous surface tensions, flex points, deviations,
drifts, and dense networks with which to contend. There are alterna-
tive modalities of becoming, nurturing ecological ways of being among
and for others. Never just in the world, humans become part of the
world. Such is the matter of the child to which this book is dedicated.
Granted, the conceit of the self-sovereign subject standing over and
against an objective world has ancient pedigree. Boethius wrote, “The
human race alone lifts its head to heaven and stands erect, despising
the earth.”17 The idea goes back to Plato’s Timaeus and is hackneyed
by the time Albertus Magnus gets around to writing that “the human
head, in which lie the intellectual and animal powers, is placed over
the entire body with respect to position and arrangement in accor-
dance with the composition and arrangement of the entire world.”18 On
such accounts, the human is endowed with exceptional properties and
prerogatives (reason, speech, emotion, erect posture, etc.), apparently
eschewing any fundamental likeness to other animate and inanimate
entities. But conversely, the labor of lifting the human so high—including
the time it takes to mature and mobilize the body of a child—requires
immense reserves of collective energy and material provisions, implies
pressure points and resistances, and entails earthly grounds and suit-
able atmospheric conditions. The medieval evidence is clear and indi-
cates the potential for debasement and debility, as we will see. Albertus
Magnus goes beyond the occasional lapse, plotting the human creature
along a continuum with other animals and plants, insisting on shared

elements (movements, generation, circulation, membranes, muscula-

ture, intestines, humors). Describing generation and growth in particu-
lar, he says, “There are many graduations in the nature of animalness.”19
Given all the commonalities—including animal memory, prudence,
dutifulness, song, and facility with language, as described in detail by
the likes of Albertus—there is hardly any feature left by which one can
make a sharp and absolute separation of species. Again, such notions
may seem surprising, given older assumptions about the rigid nature of
medieval theology and geocentric cosmology—for indeed, when was
human mastery over creation ever so self-assured? But that is a prejudice
that it is possible to overcome if we can pause long enough to examine
the manifold impurities and irregularities and the vast collections of
bodies one finds jostling and colliding together—swerving, no less—in
the medieval cosmos. My main confidence is that within apparently
inflexible anthropocentric models that still prevail, we can apprehend
something else—ultimately ecological and ethical—being generated in
the situation, for those models demarcate boundary conditions that are
actually nodal points of connection and cross-contamination. The result,
I want to show, is a picture of humanity incorporated with a plurality
of organisms and objects. Consequently, an eclectic study of this sort
has little interest in tying itself to the usual humanist hitching posts of
traditional medieval scholarship (i.e., any of the so-called humanisms
of the twelfth, thirteenth, or fourteenth centuries and beyond), as the
point is to examine processes and practices of becoming otherwise than
merely human.20
In all of this, I am contemplating the conviviality of animate and
inanimate matters that has become so central to science studies and
ecological thinking recently, variously registered in Andrew Pickering’s
“mangle of practice,” Bruno Latour’s “actor-network theory,” Manuel
De Landa’s “intensive science,” Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” Isabelle
Stengers’s “cosmopolitics,” Karen Barad’s “agential realism,” Ralph
Acampora’s “symphysis,” and Tim Ingold’s “dwelling activity” or “ha-
bituation.” I am also indebted to the allied object-oriented ontologies of
Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Timothy Morton and to the specula-
tive metaphysics of Quentin Meillassoux. Generally, I take courage from
the reinvigorating philosophical realism and radical empiricism that
have taken hold over the last decade, whatever the differences between

various camps (e.g., process oriented vs. object oriented). An ecumenical

view of these matters sees much overlap.21 As Myra Hird wrote a few
years back, as if in anticipation of those developments, scholars are in-
creasingly interested in the “matter of culture” and not just the “culture
of matter.”22 As is already clear from a few examples, many stake whole
philosophies on processes of generation or parturition. Recent thinkers
associated with the posthuman in particular show a special regard for
eggs and embryos as emergent properties and world ecologies. That
interest dates back to Donna Haraway’s Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields,
which began as her doctoral thesis relating the discovery of “molecular
ecology” in modern embryology, as if portending ideas of cross-species
confederacy for which she is much better known today.23
The approaches I find most congenial in any case are those that
arouse a sense of fascination for things outside and a corresponding
sense of urgency about why others besides human subjects should be
treated seriously as objects of ethical attention. There has been some
concern of late over the perceived ethical and political impartiality of
posthumanist, ecological, and materialist thought on which I draw, but
those worries are misguided. Posthumanism appears to some to encour-
age a reductionist antihumanism that neglects the most important power
imbalances within human societies; flat ontology is sometimes charged
with flattening ethics by removing grounds for making distinctions, so
that, say, plastics and insects demand as much attention as marginalized
peoples. Yet I am persuaded by Acampora and Bennett, who argue that
moral philosophy gets things backward by trying to find justifications to
connect and care for the other, taking the individual as the starting point
before attempting to work toward otherness, as though everything were
naturally separate. Instead, what needs justification is the separatism that
leads to such an impasse and ends up sidelining objects, animals, and
human subjects in the first place. What happens when we start with the
cohabitation and commingling of all, or what Acampora calls “somatic
sociability” and Bennett “political ecology”? We see that plastic bottles
and pine beetles are indeed powerful agents within local ecosystems
that include and infiltrate human sociality. We may start to understand
what it means to dwell within a profound ethical relation to countless
other objects and organisms, recognizing our extensive involvements
before any one thing is singled out for special treatment. As we soon

discover, too, the abjection of persons (e.g., women or indigenous) is

grounded in a corollary trivialization of alien things, networks, natures,
habitats, and so on. What the growing bibliography on posthuman
thought indicates is that the most concentrated and catalyzing work
on mineral, vegetable, animal, human, or transhuman ontologies has
taken place around modern literature, cinema, cybernetics, cognitive
science, and evolutionary biology. Much work on medieval matters and
media remains to be done.24
An example worth lingering over here is the speculative realism as-
sociated with Meillassoux, whose thought is profoundly important to the
current project in ways that will become clear. For Meillassoux produces
a vigorous defense of radical becoming and, along the way, invokes the
classical and medieval cosmologies to be explored in this book. There
is, however, a serious historical lacuna in his formulation. Meillassoux’s
main interest as a professional philosopher (and iconoclast) is in de-
nouncing the way contemporary thought has become reduced to a
philosophy of access or adequation, neglecting the philosophy of being
and becoming. Epistemology, in other words, has for too long trumped
ontology. Philosophers since Kant effectively all ring changes on variet-
ies of what he calls correlationism. “By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea
according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between
thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the
other.”25 It is the notion that the world is always relative to human means
and ends, consciousness, intuitions, intentions, signs, subjects, or (as
often assumed nowadays) intersubjectivity. Within the resulting corre-
lationist circle, there is no access to the outside, no possibility of “being
entirely elsewhere.”26 Always trapped inside consciousness or language,
philosophy has lost “the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-
critical thinkers.”27 Meillassoux presents, as an alternative, a speculative
metaphysics at the dawn of what he hopes will be a new epoch, rejecting
both the precritical past and the correlationist present. The value of his
thinking to the present study should be obvious already, for I, too, am
interested in possible beings and more-than-human becomings. The
first move in his argument is particularly germane: Meillassoux starts by
defending “ancestral statements” about how the world evolved without
human observers; he has in mind “statements about events anterior to
the advent of life as well as consciousness,” such as one finds in theories

of evolutionary change. The virtue of the science, as he sees it, is that

it adopts a spontaneous and plausible realism about the world as it
existed before humans.28 These points might easily also apply to biologi-
cal change (ontogeny, not just phylogeny), assuming one is permitted
to extend the core idea, and as we have already noted, Meillassoux is
interested in the advent of the human at birth—the child. Like fossils
dug up from the ground, the embryo extracted from the womb is prior
to any “correlation” because it is earlier and exterior to mind. It surely
counts as “ancestral” matter. Another key idea in the work of Meillassoux
is the “absoluteness of contingency,” and this, too, has resonance in the
current study of chaos and cosmogony and the matter of the child. The
speculative realism of Meillassoux hinges on “the absolute necessity of
the contingency of everything.”29 It amounts to a pure possibility, which
he goes on to elaborate in a lyrical passage about the primordial state of
things in terms that, as we will come to see later, cannot help but recall
an antiquated cosmographic mise-en-scène:

Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form

of chaos, a hyper-Chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to
be impossible, not even the unthinkable. If we look through the
aperture which we have now opened up onto the absolute, what
we see there is a rather menacing power—something insensible,
and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing
forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of
realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering
random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing
a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses,
like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright
spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm.30

Everything could be otherwise. Meillassoux’s hyperchaos is a neces-

sary corrective to correlationism, and his sweeping vision may also
make bold anyone who wishes to study earlier ages. For the medieval
sciences frequently entertain just this sort of teeming temporality and
absolute contingency, becoming highly speculative about the ultimate
origins of everything. What is recognizable in Meillassoux’s vision is
not just the turbid chaos but also an ontogenetic tendency toward the

zero-degree “ancestrality” from which anything at all arises. What has

not yet come under scrutiny are some of the historical claims involved
in these speculations, which are openly intended to shut out nonmodern
ways of hypothesizing the real, even as they share a similar cosmopoetic
mode and offer a thrilling (if familiar) view of the universe that should
be called Ovidian and that exemplifies the “mythic idiom of specula-
tive realism.”31
For Meillassoux is a vigorous promoter of the periodization of intel-
lectual history, and there is hidden in his otherwise searing iconoclasm a
surprising degree of respect for conventional divisions and serializations
of chronicle time (Historie). He partitions the past into epochs before
and after Kant: on the far side stands a naive, precritical, dogmatic
metaphysics that is of no use to us nowadays, on the other an enlight-
ened critique that has become second nature. Medieval embryology and
cosmology are disqualified from the speculative metaphysics this phi-
losopher champions, shunted into a benighted past that moderns have
supposedly transcended. It is a past he associates with the usual articles
of faith: “For this kind of dogmatism which claims that this God, this
world, this history and ultimately this actually existing political regime
necessarily exists, and must be the way it is—this kind of absolutism does
indeed seem to pertain to an era of thinking to which it is neither pos-
sible nor desirable to return.”32 The speculation Meillassoux advocates
seeks to be “absolutizing” without being “absolutist.” And then there
is Meillassoux’s alarming remark about premodern science in general:
“Certainly,” he concedes, “humans did not have to wait for the advent
of empirical science in order to produce accounts of what had preceded
human existence—whether in the shape of Cyclopes, Titans, or Gods.
But the fundamental dimension presented by modern science from the
moment of its inception was the fact that its assertions could become
part of a cognitive process. They were no longer of the order of myths,
theogonies, or fabulations, and instead became hypotheses susceptible
to corroboration or refutation by actual experiments.”33 Here is just the
latest version of Burckhardtian mythology about how the brambles of
faith had to be cleared away for reason to flourish in the modern period.
Meillassoux puts too much faith in the dogmas and legends of the past
(and, for that matter, surely entrusts too much to raw experimental hy-
potheses), rejecting pre-Enlightenment reason as though it were really

as rational and faithful as it appears to him. One of my intentions is to

present some speculative alternatives within the putatively precritical,
prescientific past. The idea that medieval sciences are all monsters and
myths is refuted by a casual glance at the mathematical rigor of Ptolemaic
astronomy and meteorology, or the sophisticated trigonometry of the
astrolabe, about which I will have something to say in this book. Nor is
speculative realism able to function without its own exhilarating myths.
But perhaps the real problem is internal to the thought of Meillassoux,
who cannot sustain the courage of his convictions. On one hand, he
touts the Galilean–Copernican revolution and the modern introduction
of mathematization and empiricism that is proper to science. On the
other hand, Meillassoux suggests that modern critique is never critical
enough. As he explains in his final chapter, called “Ptolemy’s Revenge,”
the paradox is that, whereas science now attempts to reformat the world
by mathematical means, Kantian philosophy has enacted a “Ptolemaic
counter-revolution,” recentering the human observer over the world
of nature.34 This is to return to his complaint against correlationism:
for Meillassoux, modern thought removes the earth from the center
(geocentrism) only to place the human there (anthropocentrism), pro-
ducing what is perhaps the most extreme humanist fallacy.
Meillassoux seems to me clear-sighted about the prospects that may
lie ahead for speculative reason and philosophical realism. His call to
think outside of “the correlate” stands to reinvigorate scholarship in
many fields. But his speculations are grounded in a modern prejudice
he everywhere should have wished to reject in eluding anthropocen-
trism. Pitting the present against spurious premodern cosmologies,
he is bound to remain stuck in another correlationist circle, unable to
imagine the viability of an “ancestral” Middle Ages. Instead, Meillassoux
forces a provisional adoption of the metrics of scientific modernism and
the cool reflexive reason of Kant, only to urge that those conceits must
now be overcome on the way to something “outside.” He fails to realize
just how much the dilemma is a modern chimera indebted to a familiar
and facile logic of progress. It is a specific historical dilemma arising
from a presumption to have prevailed over the “Ptolemaic”—which
Meillassoux admits is operative today. That anachronism is enough to
indicate that the “medieval” is not some long-gone period we can afford
to ignore.35 Whatever counts as such passes before us now (Geschichte,

not Historie), composing possible futures and exerting influence, entail-

ing a certain shared responsibility toward history that anticipates things
to come. As Meillassoux unwittingly shows, we are subject to the past
that we not only inherit but also still inhabit. Forward-thinking literary
historians and others have begun to broach related topics, and my work
has taken shape in dialogue with them and shares Joy and Newfeld’s
enthusiasm “for a more present-minded medieval studies but also for a
more historically-minded contemporary humanities.”36 Part of what we
must do, following Carolyn Dinshaw, is “claim the possibility of a fuller,
denser, more crowded now.”37 To that end, I urge that we look again to
see just how speculative past cosmologies could be in and across time.

This book consists of three wide-ranging essays on the available narra-

tives of ontogeny in medieval scientific writing, conduct manuals, dream
visions, and so on, that tend to act as a solvent to fixed ontologies. Each
part also addresses physical bodies (nonnarrative materials) of one sort
or another. As such, they assay the problem of ontogeny diversely, testing
and taking stock of the evidence in no comprehensive manner but by
way of a few distinct starting points. There are, of course, key differences
between stars, embryos, metal toys, rhetorical figures, and household
appliances, but they are also intimately connected and conduct similar
energies. Here is a rough sketch of the book’s shape.
The first essay, “Being Born,” begins again by taking up human con-
ception and reproduction at a visceral, even viscous, level of existence.
Examining medieval narratives of gestation and growth in an extended
treatment of fetal, neonatal, and infantile development, we see how the
changing proto-body amounts to a molten milieu. Life begins as liquid.
Medical texts describe how blood is concocted into seed and seminal
fluids coagulate to produce an intersex body subsequently heated by the
womb, fed by menstruum, saturated by humors, shot through by plan-
etary and zodiacal influence, and fashioned from the four elements—and
eventually quickened. Prenatal existence is subject to multiple torsions,
accretions, and alterations in the womb, disclosing a fluvial being that is
mutable and morphogenetic. According to medieval notions of delayed
animation, bodies and souls come together in a graduated process to
generate and sustain prenatal life, moving through vegetal insentience
to animal and human sentience. The concept of ontogeny (becoming) is

a better category than ontology (being) for capturing the creative, conju-
gated forms of earthly existence. Analogous processes are at work outside
of the womb in infancy and beyond, an equally contingent and creative
period. A newborn is delivered over to social networks, regimens, and
mechanisms (shaping, suckling, naming, baptizing, language acquisition,
etc.), all the conditions of a life so conceived. Human reproduction is
therefore a story of life incomplete and in process (“neotenic”), which
is to say eventful, ecological, virtual, and radically dependent on so
many material supports. Human development posits a self-estranging,
coagulating proto-body at the origin of being, exerting immense pres-
sure on notions of human identity, distinctiveness, freedom, judgment,
and so on. It is a precious, if precarious, time when creatures are barely
alive, exposed to and extended in a potentially limitless field of ancestral
relations, consisting of passing states and partial configurations. It is a
kind of becoming that is nothing but creaturely life: for a time unformed,
insensate, unclothed, anonymous, unbaptized, prostrate, and speech-
less, to name a few of the marked deprivations that will be addressed
early on. The delimitation of “life” will remain critical throughout, but
we are not dealing here with modern biopolitics or bioethics but rather
with an emergent creatureliness (from the Latin verb creare, “to beget,
to bring into being”) in an ethical relation to a future that comes before
the time of politics and morality as often understood. Analysis of such
a radical crisis for the human is hard going but rewarding for what it
reveals about the possibilities for change and species coexistence, or what
Acampora calls “corporal compassion,” an ethical sense of cross-species
conviviality.38 It is limned in a concern for immanent life wherever that
kind of affective alliance is detected in the world. It is witnessed first
of all in the deep attachment of parents and caregivers to that singular
living thing that is not yet individual, equal, or viably human.39 Such
solicitude—which we call love—is exemplary for reaching into areas of
creaturely existence that are by some definitions unlovely. I begin by at-
tending to the ideas and images found in instructional and philosophical
texts of various kinds but eventually turn to literary examples, including
Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, in which the author compares himself
to a suckling infant, constituting himself as an (un)speaking confes-
sional subject before Lady Love. A renowned example that takes off in
a different direction is the Middle English Pearl, a moving dream vision

in which a dead infant girl appears from beyond the grave to reveal a
posthuman future. It is an unlikely event given her abject infancy, and yet
infancy is a precondition for imagining something genuinely natal and
novel. I will conclude with a discussion of images and ideas of “chaos”
and the “cosmic egg,” exploring the birth and infancy of the universe,
a conception of all creation in the aggregate as ontogenetic and never
fully ontologized. Such is the matter of the child writ large.
The next essay, “Childish Things,” goes on to explore further evi-
dence of “infantile” or “childish” modes of becoming, pursuing versions
of natality and novelty that outlast childhood and do not pertain only
to the human. Here I consider a range of toys and trinkets: palpable,
fascinating things in the presence of which the human is formed and,
I urge, deformed and distracted from purposeful action in an adult
world. I am interested in how their materials and miniaturization render
inanimate objects into animated, lively, and motivated presences, and
how these things prompt spontaneous play and creative interactions
of a type that is difficult to rationalize. No one has yet taken medieval
childhood or children’s play as evidence for the priority of ontogeny
over static ontology or for opening up a space to discuss an-economic
modes of humanizing or posthumanizing.40 I argue that the situation
is morphogenetic in a way that parallels biological generation, and to
make the case, I devote a large part of the analysis to a single charis-
matic object, a small-scale metal-armored horseman. The focus on an
individual object has as another purpose to fix attention on a singular
thing snatched from the whirling eddies of change: something relatively
stationary and metallic, and from one perspective, the least lively and
liquid of matters. I begin with the notion that this replica may have been
intended to reproduce ideology more than anything, yet I will argue
that the generative nature of the thing is inexhaustible. It tells a story of
being-under-construction. The miniature is not just what it appears to
be in any given instant, and that is a function of its being in some sense
charmingly itself. Such small things offer occasions to think through the
links between material substance and craftsmanship, human and non-
human physical scales, and the relationship between reproductions and
what we take to be the real world. What kind of treatment or handling
does such a small made object demand? Is the figurine better understood
as form or substance, plural or singular, functional or dysfunctional,

past or present technology? My analysis of toys takes inspiration from a

remark in Agamben’s Infancy and History, according to which children
are described as “humanity’s little scrap-dealers,” playing with whatever
comes to hand, making use of otherwise wasted objects.41 Trying out
an object-oriented approach to the plaything (theorizing a “toy ontol-
ogy”), I sketch various ways in which objects exist in an interstitial and
chaotic space where almost anything seems possible. Here I explore
other perdurable physical objects, artifactual and still vital, that have
survived down to the present day, including puppets and a mechani-
cal animal. I come around to examine literary miniaturization in the
works of Geoffrey Chaucer, who plays with so many toylike objects—at
one point rendering himself a doll before choosing to tell a tale about a
puppetlike knight. Figurative language is itself a mechanical device in
the hands of some contemporary writers, and I briefly return to Usk’s
Testament of Love, in which the author imagines himself as a subject
at play with and among rhetorical figures and technical matters. Usk’s
various devices—the knot, the ship, the pearl, and so on—enable creative
sorts of play and performances of self that are never quite of himself.
His is not an autobiography in any straightforward sense. Instead, the
author generates an infantile or childish confessional subject-in-relation,
realizing and even relishing a dependent creaturely life.
The final essay, “The Mess,” indicates that a condition of dependency
and self-estrangement is catalyzed in a common place where we might
least expect to find it: at the dining table, where children are raised up in
so many ways. Tables are admittedly accommodating, practical, everyday
furnishings, serving human appetites and bearing up cultural practices
in the household. They are so contingent on use, so routinely capitalized,
so tied up in the foodways of a people, that it is tempting to identify
them totally with political economy and human consumption. The thing
has indeed long been seen as a paradigmatic object of commerce and
consumption, whether considered from the vantage of Plato’s poesis,
Heidegger’s equipment, Marx’s commodity fetish, or Derrida’s specter.
Medieval dining tables have served up many analogies and are often seen
as key to the reproduction of an ideal humanity, one that is central—in
the celebrated analyses of Norbert Elias, among many others—to the
development of the autonomous modern subject. There is no doubt that
the table and related accoutrements are formative in medieval children’s

lives, and I will examine a body of literature that taught them how to
behave. The young are to adopt the proper diet and decorum, acquiring
“becoming mannerisms” according to prevailing canons of taste. And
yet they also furnish recipes for becoming otherwise: the comely youth
is appropriated into the larger social and material assemblage. Like
the child’s plaything, the table and things associated with dining are
contingent objects to which humans become subject forevermore. A
table is rather more of a mess (in all the relevant senses) than has been
previously acknowledged, a place where incommensurable matters cross
and contaminate one another and where human agency and appetites
are formed and frustrated. Adapting the ideas of Hannah Arendt and
Vilém Flusser, I will argue that a table as such brings something to the
table. In some contexts, the mess table becomes a hypertrophic, mate-
rial excrescence, animate and monstrous in what it demands of those
gathered around the thing; it consumes and alienates those who would
seek nourishment. Here we must consider the relations between hand
and spoon in the act of eating, the zoography of tableware, the compan-
ionship of bread, and the obsession with keeping clean and rising above
the animal body as expressed in conduct literature. In the writings of
John Lydgate and John Russell especially, tables and texts are engaged
in a kind of postprandial discourse with one another (a feed system).
They transmit bits and bites, engage in feedback. Good conduct is not
just (or even) how a human body deploys things but also how bodies of
texts and other things end up deploying the human. Eating and dining
are consequently about developing an intimate companionship not just
with fellow humans but also with the nonhuman edibles and equipment
that make fellowship possible. Conduct texts equip humans to do things
they otherwise would not be able to do, and so the formation of the child
from this vantage is a story of becoming not so much an autonomous
subject as a heteronomous object-oriented one. Finally, I address the
particular function of dormant and festive tables in the works of Chaucer
and Gower and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Langland’s Piers
Plowman, and Wynnere and Wastoure, all of which may seem remote
from practice but which are in fact beholden to a messy materiality.
So this book is not just about human origins. It is about novel as-
semblages that can and do originate at any age, and it is about nov-
elty and assembly as such outside of the human. It recollects dynamic

germinal processes and empirical events, focusing on some histories

of what Romano calls the “impersonal event of birth” and Meillassoux
the improbable “advent of life in matter.”42 Such ontogenetic events
may happen at any time and go on without end. As Nancy writes, “to
be born means precisely never to cease being born, never to have done
with never fully attaining to being, to its status, to its stance of to its
standing, and to its autonomy.”43 It is the very issue of time and space
that becomes visible in reproductive processes. “The fetus is a protean
parasite, and remains so somewhat after birth,” writes Michel Serres.
“For how long? The evaluations vary. In the end, it is better to say for-
ever. Weaning is only local. Man’s child does not live by bread alone,
or by milk, air, and heat; it needs language, information, and culture as
well to form its environment, a milieu without which it would die.”44
Here we notice what it takes to sustain a life. We see how the one is al-
ways manifold. Elements ramify. I go to similarly generative sites in the
past that resist the parochial human subject (all too familiar by now),
deploying notions of ancestral beginnings as chronological moments
and ontological conditions of a mutable humanity. The point is to re-
discover, at micro and macro levels of organization and speciation, early
recognitions of organisms and objects under construction. The task is
to identify residual and emergent ideas of becoming where humanity
is and remains at risk.
Being Born

At the start of his Confessions, Augustine is more candid than most about
the precariousness of life, peering into the abyssal depths of becoming
from which anything at all arises. But his remarks about the amnesiac
infant are meant to be instructive, generating further reflection on the
mysterious origins and ends of life. For in facing up to the existential
limits of the child, Augustine initiates a struggle to apprehend tran-
scendent being: “You, O Lord my God, gave me my life and my body
when I was born.”1 Memory having failed, the confessional subject has
recourse to apostrophe and assertive belief. Naturalistic explanations
give way to mysterious supernatural ones, issuing a theology that may
explain away the problem. Substituting prayerful appeal for an impos-
sible first-person account, Augustine exemplifies his faithful repose in
divine knowledge and providential care. And yet that is precisely the
form his ignorance takes, as he is compelled to recognize in his lack of
self-recognition something bare and alien, betraying a marked anxiety
about the ontogenetic situation of human dependency and derivation.
The divine gift confirms that one is not the author of existence and so
deprives the individual of resources he later takes for granted (agency,
speech, memory), throwing him into existence. A creature who origi-
nally lacks so much must admit, as Augustine does, that the human
cannot explain the gratuity of personal persistence: “true though my
conclusions may be, I do not like to think of that period as part of
the same life I now lead, because it is dim and forgotten and, in this
sense, it is no different from the time I spent in mother’s womb.”2 The


provenance of the human is no less baffling for being given in advance,

then. As Hildegard of Bingen wrote some centuries later, “Oh human,
regard what you were when you were just a lump in your mother’s womb!
You were mindless and powerless to bring yourself to life; but then you
were given spirit and motion and sense, so that you might . . . come to
fruitful deeds.”3 Prophetic appeals to divine creation conduct the inquiry
in another register, but they must not be mistaken for something they are
not. Generation is not easily rid of disquiet, even if humans eventually
do exhibit spirit, motion, sense, reason. As we will see, such sentiments
anticipate many later discussions of delayed animation and epigenesis,
according to which it takes ample time and space for a creature to unfold,
and in that respect already reckon with the temporality and topology
of the human. Again, claims for inceptive intelligence or soul (a puta-
tive innate ontology) only restate the problem (a dynamic ontogeny)
they are supposed to solve, and this is a crucial moment of recognition
informing this book. From the start, there is something irrational and
improper in place of the developing matter of the child; there is still the
haunting and inhuman paradox of living to die or dying to live, expressed
in Augustine’s antimetabolic turn of phrase, vitam mortalem, mortem
vitalem. He does not hide his uncertainty about the barely living thing:
he does not claim to know “at what time the infant begins to live in the
womb.”4 Nor did later writers settle the issue.
The methodological challenges of the topic are not to be under-
estimated, then, as suggested already by attempts to save appearances.
There is no shortage of efforts to rationalize novelty; one almost requires
a theodicy to cope. Like others who followed, Augustine assumes that,
given enough time, the human embryo will be formed and endowed with
body and soul, and he in fact bequeathed to medieval thought the idea
of directed unfolding by seminal reasons.5 He is basically recapitulating
an Aristotelian entelechy according to which, “when we are dealing with
definite and ordered products of nature, we must not say that each is
of a certain quality because it becomes so, rather that they become so
and so because they are so and so, for the process of becoming attends
upon being and is for the sake of being, not vice versa.”6 As Aristotle
puts the matter elsewhere in more dogmatic terms, “the generation is
for the sake of the substance and not this for the sake of the genera-
tion.”7 From this teleological vantage, an embryo is liable to be viewed

as a temporary way station, fulfilling a fixed destiny and, beyond that, a

providential design. Yet in presenting these alternatives, Aristotle must
admit there is some choice to be made about where to begin: it is a mat-
ter, as he says, of finding the “fittest mode” of analysis for the subject
matter.8 His is a pragmatic starting point that becomes for Augustine a
spiritual conviction. A methodological shift is now necessary if we are
to track the so-called seminal reasons back to their corporeal origins,
regaining the “seminal adventure of the trace,” in Derrida’s pregnant
phrase.9 Only then can we hope to remain faithful to the corporeality
that motivates and materializes being in many later medieval accounts;
only then does the genetic indeterminism of matter come into focus
prior to the belated determinations of organized forms—and only then
can we get a glimpse of the immanent unfolding of things.
If this seems like a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma, it surely is. We
may take inspiration from a seriocomic dialogue composed by a fifth-
century contemporary of Augustine: “You jest about what you suppose
to be a triviality, in asking whether the hen came first from the egg or
the egg from the hen,” says a character in Macrobius’s Saturnalia, “but
the point should be regarded as one of importance—one worthy of
discussion and careful discussion at that.” He argues both sides of the
issue, demonstrating how one can arrive at the different conclusions
based on different premises. On one hand, the egg must be seen as
producing the hen: “For at its beginning a thing is always as yet im-
perfect and shapeless, and it is only by the additions which come with
increasing skill and the passage of time that it reaches perfection. To
fashion a bird, then, nature, beginning with something shapeless and
rudimentary, made the egg in which as yet there is no resemblance to
the living creature; and it is from the egg that the complete bird, as we
see it, has come—the product of a gradual process of development.”
But on the other hand, the egg seems to be the product of the hen: “To
say that the egg was made before the hen is like saying that the womb
was made before the woman. . . . Nature in the first place fashioned each
living creature perfect and complete and then laid down an everlasting
law for the perpetuation of the species by procreation.”10 I will return
to Macrobius later but now simply want to insist with him on keeping
debate open and tarrying as long as possible with the inchoate moments
of gestation anterior to being, vital moments preceding and producing

life. I am recommending a critical orientation that requires no selective

argumentation, only a keen eye for detail in the evidence that lies before
us. Teleological claims about final causation (the totality of being over
becoming, ends over origins, mind over matter) are surprisingly reliable
witnesses to vital dependencies. Becoming is a problem that drives the
search for adequate explanations all the time.
The difficulty in coming to terms with the advent of life is not to
overdraw distinctions between animate and inanimate phases of being,
human and nonhuman forms of nurture, pure and impure thoughts
and deeds. It is to speculate about times and spaces when the very
categories of life and death are in flux and when an entity is about to be
formed, as in the Pythagorean teachings rehearsed near the end of Ovid’s
Metamorphoses (where the human in the womb amounts only to “mere
seeds and hopes”), or later in the twelfth century, in Bernardus Silvestris’s
Cosmographia (where the “seeds of things” are not yet what they will
become).11 Seminal reasons tend to mask the problem of the seed, egg,
or embryo. For our purposes, then, it will be useful to avail ourselves of
the term virtuality (after the medieval Latin coinage virtualis, “strength,
potency, effectiveness”), employed in specialized senses by schoolmen,
cosmographers, and poets among other wanderers, describing scenes
of springtime efflorescence, planetary influence, and human generation.
It crops up first in medieval embryology—most famously in Dante’s
discussion of the “virtute informativa.”12 He speaks of the power of an
organism to reproduce by means of an active virtue inherent in blood
become semen, which, when mingled with female matter in the womb,
is further shaped by animal force (“virtute attiva”), thereafter receiving
a human spirit replete with virtue (“di vertù repleto”). Giles of Rome,
among many others in the course of their scientific discussions, adopts
the terminology to describe thresholds of becoming.13 The virtual is
that which enables matter to attain successive states of extension and
animation and so cannot be identified exactly with a single, present state
of matter—neither the hen nor the egg in any hypostasized form. There
is no arresting its energies. John Duns Scotus, philosopher of the virtual
par excellence, worked out a modal theory according to which being
is divided into possible and actual states of affairs. For him, unrealized
possibilities (virtualities) are no less real for not being actual; the virtual
is not opposed to reality but constitutes one intensive, effective mode

of the real. In modal theory, as in embryology, a powerfully generative

part of reality is kept in reserve for future constructions, as the very
modifying aspect of substances.14
The idea may now have a familiar ring thanks to the work of Gilles
Deleuze, whose interest in Duns Scotus is well established. For Deleuze,
too, embryogenesis is a signal example.15 His subject is a “larval sub-
ject” constituted by and through biochemical and molecular events,
evolving according to the virtual “kinetics of the egg” prior to any
ontological determinations.16 Consequently, he reverses the ordinary
way of thinking about growth as increasing complexity: individuation
eliminates morphogenetic possibilities rather than developing them. The
embryo—a paradigmatic body without organs—is the highest point of
virtual generality and intensity before something specific crystallizes.
Embryonic movements, localizations, torsions, and concretions consti-
tute dynamic states of becoming that are not yet viable for the species.
Extensive tissues, in other words, are just proof that intensities have
been spent. The virtual is captured most intriguingly by Vilém Flusser,
who has written about the common evolutionary origins of two species,
the octopus and the human: “The essential support of evolution is not
the organism, but the egg. . . . What is then surprising, if we observe the
already realised ‘phenotypes’ (the living and extinct organisms), is not
the richness of their variations, but on the contrary, their relative poverty
if compared to the realisable virtualities.”17 Manuel De Landa likewise
takes morphogenesis of the embryo or egg to exemplify the virtuality
and multiplicity of biomass flows, or what he also calls the “complex
cascade of symmetry-breaking phase transitions” that constitute life and
death.18 The egg is the intensive and inclusive topological space of the
virtual, which over time facilitates the rise of extensive and exclusive
structures.19 Meillassoux has recourse to the same genetic origins, but
in contrast to Deleuze, he focuses on the paradox that more comes from
less—how sentient life comes from insentient, germinal, molecular stuff.
“The paradigmatic example of such an emergence . . . is obviously that of
the appearance of a life furnished with sensibility directly from a matter
within which one cannot, short of sheer fantasy, foresee the germs of
this sensibility.” For him, parturition represents a quantum leap in be-
ing: “the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming
which is not dominated by any pre-constituted set of possibilities.”20 But

this is the paradox of Deleuzian becoming, too. As Meillassoux puts the

point, “it remains impossible to think rationally about the advent of life
in matter, because it cannot be understood how the lifeless can produce
a qualitative multiplicity of affects and perceptions from a certain ‘mo-
lecular geometry.’ . . . This essential excess of life and thought beyond
matter implies a scission that ruptures all continuity.”21 These are all
useful conceptual matrixes that should help us resist the temptation to
refer virtual means to ends as quickly as others might. They also suggest
that one thing common to past and present theoretical discussions is the
urge to raise the microcosmic instance (egg, seed, spore, sperm, germ,
or larva) to the level of the macrocosmic (universal or historical). It is
indeed an ancient gesture. Egg and embryo appear and reappear again
at diverse scales, where they are employed to thematize change (e.g.,
cosmogony, metamorphosis, resurrection). One starts talking eggs and
ends up addressing the universe—Deleuze was hardly the first to say
the “entire world is an egg.”22 I will survey evidence of everything from
single animal eggs to the great animate world egg, but in any case, our
focus will be on what I am calling the matter of the child before one
ever becomes a mature political animal or biographical subject. Such
cases present views of pluripotent matter that we may call being barely
alive, a phrase intended to conjure being vulnerably exposed (bared to
life and the thousand natural shocks flesh is heir to) and virtually alive
without qualification (plainly, intensely, exceptionally open to life as it
unfolds). In this I am deliberately echoing both Eric Santner’s “creaturely
life” and Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life,” alluding to the power to give and
take life, but without giving priority to biopower over something decid-
edly more ecological.23 The vitality and viscerality of becoming entail
that the human is abandoned to pure immanence, a primary element,
a no-man’s-land if ever there was one.
I pursue what one medieval text calls an embryological “motion
from not being to being” that produces something that both is and is
not.24 The historical contexts vary, but many medieval writers share an
interest in the paradoxical reproduction of singular life-forms, a recur-
rent topic of medieval scholasticism, sciences, and law where animation,
abortion, baptism, burial, and resurrection, among other issues, were
debated. Such accounts of evolving embodiment and ensoulment draw
out connections between humans and other things inside and outside
of the known universe. Embryology discloses a liquid life. I consider

how medieval law, philosophy, and medical science all grappled with the
precarious issue, addressing the Augustinian questions, when does life
begin? And how does anyone survive? A book that may seem especially
pertinent is When Did I Begin? Conception of the Human Individual in
History, Philosophy, and Science by Norman Ford, but it is an avowedly
sectarian effort to establish consensus and contribute to the Roman
Catholic “search for truth,” whereas mine is a historical inquiry into
multiple perspectives and multiplicity itself.25 Discourses on human
becoming scarcely lay controversial questions to rest. If reasoning and
speaking are by convention the singular marks of the human, what is the
ontological and moral status of prenatal and neonatal life? What makes
the infantile being worthy of a name? Such issues did not just occur to
those in elite or learned circles. Becoming posed urgent problems for
parents, midwives, lawyers, and pastoral writers alike, who were vexed
by the vulnerability and intercorporeality of early life, and who either
worked with or against the awareness that the human cohabits with a
plethora of others. Later medieval literature made a virtue of that sort
of contingency, too, and addressed ontogeny at diverse scales. Here I
turn, for example, to the figure of the confessional writer as infant in
Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love. I also have in mind the postmortem
body of the resurrected person who is, in Dante’s neologism, trasumanar
(transhumanized). A most sensational case is the Middle English Pearl,
an anonymous poem about a deceased infant girl who returns in a
vision from beyond the grave. A radiant messianic figure, the dead
infant becomes transhuman partly in virtue of the fact that she is such
a meager, immature being. Finally, I turn from theology to cosmology
and various accounts of the Makanthropos, including treatments of the
macrocosm in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and elsewhere. Medieval
embryology already indicates that various species share somatic and
psychical histories, putting in question reflexive views of human sepa-
ratism; now, at the most general level, the universe appears to thrive ab
ovo. Ultimately, what should emerge from all the assembled evidence
is a clear view of how ontogeny precedes ontology, furnishing novel
ways of thinking about a virtual collective life. From diverse vantages,
we will see that becoming is an irresistible stimulus and how the em-
bryonic and infantile are throughout life and death scalable to differ-
ent applications (therapeutic, moral, eschatological, astrological, and


Christ may have been conceived as fully formed from the start, but his
incarnation is the single exception that proves the reproductive rule.26
In art and literature, Christ is conventionally deposited as a homun-
culus in the womb of Mary. By contrast, humans develop gradually
over long stretches of time. “Al þe membres ben ischape som and som,
nouȝ[t] aile at ones. Crist alone was al at ones ischape and distinguid in
his modir wombe when he was conseyved þerinne. So seiþ Austyn.”27
Humans are at best on the way to becoming perfected (to borrow the
scholastic terminology), but the route was far from perfect. Indeed,
fetal and infantile existence is no less than a period of extreme disability
and humiliation, which is why children were sometimes compared to
irrational animals, paralytics, the mad, and the slumbering.28 Medieval
understandings of human gestation and growth largely derive from
traditions of Hippocratic–Galenic and Aristotelian medicine, and the
alternative options have been well surveyed by others. I am less interested
in rehearsing internal disputes than in examining the ways such accounts
agree to materialize and virtualize the human. Biological reproduction
is one of the moments in which theory attempts to naturalize itself
spatiotemporally, searching for adequate grounds on which to stake
larger anthropological claims. But these are shifting grounds of physical
maturation and metaphysical speculation. For whatever the alternatives,
all reach back to virtual moments when the nascent human being was
only a possible being. How, if at all, did they manage?29
A sketch of embryogenesis derived from ancient Greek authorities,
subsequently taken up by the Arabic sciences and eventually translated
into Latin and English, shows the way. There were two main streams
with various tributaries flowing from them: works associated with
Hippocrates (circa 460–377 bc) and those of Aristotle (384–322 bc).
In each case, the normal path to human development is one that starts
with male seed and results in a male child (like producing like), which
means that it is precisely human normalcy that is at stake in early matura-
tion. Aristotle’s is the most straightforward account. He taught that the
male seed governed the formation of the embryo; the seed contains a
formative virtue that transforms the female menstrual blood into body;
the embryo passes by stages through insentient vegetative through to

sentient animal and rational human life; and a male fetus is formed and
animated after forty days, the female after ninety days. The Aristotelian
account is profoundly hylomorphic and patriocentric. Hylomorphism is
the view that an active virtue (i.e., formal cause) gives shape to passive
matter (the material cause). What is patriocentric is the assumption that
the male seed forms passive menstrual matter of the female. According
to Hippocratic science, by contrast, both parents supply seed that goes
toward conceiving offspring; depending on the quality and quantities of
seminal and humoral fluids, the hereditary characteristics and sex of the
offspring are set; numerous heterogeneous elements and contexts exert
further influence, resulting in the formation or deformation of the fetus;
a male infant is formed after thirty days, a female after forty-two days. A
key later figure in the Hippocratic vein is Galen (ad 129–199), who em-
phasized the roles of the uterine environment, teaching, for example, that
sex differences result from the placement of the fetus in the womb (right
for boys, left for girls). As becomes evident, Aristotle’s polarization of
elements (seed and menstruum) contrasts with the Hippocratic–Galenic
parallelism (two seeds), but in both cases, procreation takes account of
manifold causes and heterogeneous substances. Even Aristotle admits
circumstantial determinants (efficient causes besides the formal cause),
unable to segregate them.30 All authorities credit multiple material and
environmental factors besides seminal virtue even as they privilege some
over others (form over matter, activity over passivity, warmth over cold,
male over female). That is, in the mainline traditions—philosophical and
medical—human generation is described as a temporal and localized
process of embodiment with many intermediate stages and unpredict-
able outcomes. Much is the matter here.
The Middle Ages inherited understandings of conception and fetal
development from several intermediaries, notably Arabic writings,
including those of Avicenna and Averroes (in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries), and, if anything, presented and explored further complicating
factors and contingencies. An important transmission line to the West
was the eleventh-century monk Constantine the African, who favored
Hippocratic and Galenic embryology. Aristotle’s works on biology and
zoology eventually became available in the thirteenth century, and his
notions of successive stages of development were soon well represented
in the writings of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome,

and Pseudo-Albertus. The ancient opinions were gathered together and

debated in numerous places afterward, producing some variations on
the main themes. Those discussions are carried out in early encyclo-
pedias, manuals of practical instruction, and surviving compendia of
higher learning.
A well-traveled example from northern Europe is Bartholomaeus
Anglicus’s On the Properties of Things, a thirteenth-century encyclopedic
work translated into English late in the 1390s by John Trevisa, the sixth
book of which consists of a detailed exposition of human procreation,
blending the antique scientific understandings. The book’s express pur-
pose is to show that human “makynge and creacioun is more excellent
thanne makinge of oþir beestis be so moche as man is more worthi þan
oþir bestis, nouȝt onliche [not only] in verrey soule but also in most
temperat complexioun of body.”31 It is a customary claim about human
superiority when it stands alone. And yet the “complexioun of body” is
contingent on so many physical changes and vascular connections—
recalling the root of complexio (combination, makeup, embrace of
elements)—that exceptional claims must be qualified.32 The human may
be the higher animal but, like all the rest, remains a creature of time and
space, constituted by lower elements, slowly taking shape, and along the
way several elements intervene to postpone, if not permanently put at
risk, the fragile being. Another fourteenth-century text to which I will
return puts the matter in focus: John Gower writes that because the
human is subject to internal and external complexity, the visceral body
is riven and in a state of ruination. It is borne toward death: “if man
were / Mad al togedre of o matiere / Withouten interrupcioun, / Ther
sholde no corrupcioun / Engendre upon that unite. / But for there is
diversite / Within himself, he may noghte laste.”33
Diversity and dissolution of the human is therefore where one be-
gins. As On the Properties of Things indicates, several conditions must
be met for the embryo to form and flourish: the right matter (“covenable
mater”), position (“spedeful place”), disposition (“service and worch-
inge of kynde [hete]”), and governing spirit (“spirit þat ȝeveþ vertu
to þe body and governeþ and reuleþ þat vertue”).34 As for right mat-
ter, Bartholomaeus starts by taking a Hippocratic–Galenic approach,
explaining that “mater seminalis” derives from both parents. Here we
learn that the mixture falls on one side or another of the womb (the

aforementioned “place”), determining biological sex of the offspring;

male children are produced on the right side because of its “maistrie of
hete.” But parental seed is then distinguished on Aristotelian grounds:
male seed is hotter than female seed, possessing more virtue, and so
drives the process. Aristotle’s hylomorphic understanding of sex differ-
ence is eventually made explicit: “In the male beþ [are] vertues formal
and of schapinge and werchinge, and in þe femel material, suffringe, and
passive. . . . Aristotel seiþ þat a man is as it were fourme and schape, and
womman as hit were pacient and suffringe.”35 That belated claim does
not fit well with the two-seed theory entertained earlier, which is not
surprising, given constant tensions over the issue in medieval discus-
sions, attempting, as they often do, to be both pangenetic and patrio-
centric. Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie and Pseudo-Albertus’s Secrets of
Women are similarly vexed.36 For our purposes, it is enough to notice
that, no matter the asymmetries, generation is subject to radical con-
tingencies from the beginning, which Bartholomaeus calls seed (quality
and quantity) and matrix (uterine environment). Bartholomaeus in
fact attributes a formal virtue to female matter, saying that whichever
parent has strongest “vertue of the blood” will determine the offspring’s
dominant likeness.37 And as he clarifies again, both parents contribute
“vertue informatif ” in shaping the child: “For of þe essencia of the seed
it schapiþ þe brayn, bones, gristles, felles [membranes] and skynnes,
synowis [sinews], veynes and artaries, wosen [tubes] and pipes. And
of þe menstrual blood kynde [nature] schapiþ þe lyvour [liver] and al
þe fleisch[y] membres of þe whiche þe substaunce is bred and comeþ
of bloode.”38 After conception, the fetus is nourished by menstrual
blood, and the fact that such “vile mater and unstable” should be what
feeds the fetus is found troubling.39 But the female blood is as vital as
it is potentially vicious, representing a well-recognized paradox.40 The
embryo is embraced by a “smale skyn ironnen as melk,” that is to say,
curdled, producing a protective membrane to ward off danger. The de-
veloping fetus then receives “menstrual blood, and by hete and humour
of þat blood þe childe þat is conceyved is ifed and inorischid.”41 Such
equivocation about the nature of the uterine environment is instruc-
tive for what it suggests about the fate of seemingly distinct matters, for
actually the most radical distinctions congeal and marble, and at the
embryonic stage, that which is potentially injurious becomes nourishing.

A description of the four stages of embryonic development follows: in

the first stage, seed becomes as milk; in the second, seed coagulates or
clots to become a “lumpe of blood” and is called fetus; in the third, the
principal organs are shaped; and in the fourth, the other members of the
body are formed and the creature is called infans. About forty-six days
after conception, a body is prepared for animation and, having become
ensouled, starts to move, sprawl, and kick: “þan it fongiþ [receives] soule
and lif, and bigynneþ to meve itself and sprawle, and puttiþ wiþ feet
and hondes.”42 After birth, the infant emerges into another environment
that is more or less life-threatening (air that is too hot or too cold), and
the newborn cries wretchedly. A second womb of sorts, the household,
will be as vital as it is hostile.


Contemporary natural philosophers, among others, deliberated on the

same Greco-Arabic heritage, and as Cadden demonstrates, there was a
“lack of settled opinion” about the specifics, namely, disagreements about
whether one seed or two formed the embryo, whether vivification was
successive or cumulative, whether the stars exerted much influence, and
so on. And yet there was also a shared set of expectations and narrative
elaborations that we can identify.43 The main commonalities I wish to
elaborate, based on the information recovered so far in the analysis of
embryogenesis, are two ideas of spatiotemporal becoming: the delayed
animation and epigenetic transformation of the child.
The first describes the time it takes for an embryo to become viable
or perhaps merely vivified—whether considered biologically, morally,
legally, or theologically. In an age without ultrasonography, one could not
be sure when life was acquired by the fetus, and so in practice, animation
was often “identified with the subjective experience of quickening.”44 But
speculation often substituted for experience. Dante has Statius explain
the idea in the Purgatorio 25, referring to the inbreathing of divine breath
as the signal point of hominization. The Middle English De Spermate has
a section on how seminal spirit imparts the animating principle to the
bodily members, the “animacioun or soulying of the body,”45 in what is
one of the first recorded instances of the word animation.46 The text is
at a loss to explain the mystery, offering only that “the soule mynistrith

his fantasy armony of al the body”; that is, it imparts a perception of

bodily harmony or unity that, in binding discrete elements, mirrors
the macrocosm.47 Spirit and matter therefore work together to form
the human gradually. But the timing is uncertain. William of Conches
considers whether the body is ensouled “immediately after conception,
or when the body has been formed ready for a soul in the womb, or on
the day of its [first] movement, or in the hour of birth: that I have not
read [anywhere].”48 Albertus Magnus, whose work on animal reproduc-
tion was extremely influential, also has difficulty in accounting for the
interval. He covers the following topics: the production of spirit from
seminal fluid; the location of spirit in the heart; the expansion of the
body; how spirit is not one but a “multiple spirit” producing a manifold
body; how blood coagulates to form the body; how the internal organs
are formed before the external members; how growth is affected by the
seasons or the moods of parents; the envelopment of the fetus within
three uterine webs.49 Given the central role of spirit, Albertus is hewing
closely to an Aristotelian entelechy in which a governing principle drives
change and results in an inspirited human being, but the sheer amount
of data distracts us from the issue: when exactly is the matter animated
thereby? The only way to explain animation is to explain everything that
comes before, prior to the leap. Albertus also resorts to some ingenious
argumentation about sperm, which is neither animate nor inanimate and
yet must animate the human. “For if it is called animate then the sperm
of an animal should be a small animal or that of a plant a small plant.
But this has been disproven in what has gone before.” The sperm is not
an animal but the potential for one. How, then, does an animal emerge
from something that it is not? And when? He is then tempted to say that
one is animated not by sperm but by “some external bestower of forms,”
but that, too, he rejects.50 Ultimately, sperm consists in “the act and ef-
fect of the soul just as art is in the instruments of art. Thus, the sperm
is in actuality an effect of this sort, on account of which it functions
and acts by forming, animating, and vivifying the members.”51 As ever,
generation eludes that which it generates because it is so fundamentally
virtualized. Sperm is not what it appears, because it is an “effect” of some
other instrument, even as it is instrumental; it derives from “soul” even
as it facilitates the making of a new soul. There is a necessary circular-
ity to this reasoning. It restates the problem by resolving the issue to

a vanishing point (whether one calls it spirit, soul, or God), and that
is what we may find so revealing about all talk of delayed animation:
thinking about the issue sets the gaze on some far-away point on the
horizon (inanimate becomings), as though following the diminishing
perspective of a landscape painting, but requires that we also attend to
figures in the foreground (animate beings). Embryogenesis amounts to
a kind of fractal geometry too: we learn that members of the body are
generated by spirit; spirit has its seat in the heart; the heart is gener-
ated by some prior formative power; formative power issues from the
sperm; sperm issues from the body of parents; and at some point, the
sperm is endowed with an effective soul. The enveloping causes finally
explain nothing but show exactly what is the case in the folding, forming,
fractalizing event. There is no gestational “moment” to capture. There is
a sequence of phase transitions. Here we encounter some of the strangest
and most seminal phenomena in medieval thought, which do not fit any
of the usual taxonomies (animate or inanimate, human or nonhuman),
because they virtually create vital distinctions over time and space.
Animation is one among other phase transitions in the sequence of
generation, and it may seem most pivotal, but there are other thresholds
that must be crossed in the process of hominization. Delayed anima-
tion must be seen in the larger context of epigenesis, already displayed
in the earlier discussion of sperm and menstruum. Epigenesis refers
to the genetic interactions and events in the space of the womb where
life develops gradually and topologically, expanding by accretions and
convolutions, absorbing and congealing—transmitting and transcoding
proto-human matter. The alternative view is preformationism, which
came increasingly into fashion much later and joined with the mecha-
nistic embryology of Descartes: a notion that the whole being was
formed in miniature in the womb. The distinction was an ancient one.
Aristotle discusses the two ways of looking at the nature of the seed in
On the Generation of Animals, and as we have seen, Macrobius’s argu-
ment in favor of the hen coming before the egg essentially captures the
dilemma. Medieval embryology tends to prefer epigenetic accounts
(excepting the incarnation of Christ) and argues only over the question
about the degree of genetic indetermination in the process of becoming.
Later medieval understandings of gestation and growth were interested
in delimiting material and environmental impingements (efficient or

material causes, whatever the formal or final causes, as mentioned).

So, for example, Giles of Rome lists ten causes in his De formatione
corporis humani in utero: quality and quantity of sperm, the age of the
father, the place and disposition of the testicles, the fetus’s location in
the womb, the complexion of the mestruum, the diet of parents, the
seasons and winds, and the planets.52 Several different variables come
up elsewhere in the literature.53 Diet is obviously an important factor in
many discussions, as food is ever a determining element and potential
contaminant.54 Peter Lombard’s Sentences acknowledges that the body
“grows with nourishment of foods and other things,”55 and Adelard of
Bath goes much further, as we will see later, arguing that food effectively
invades and infects the human subject. Then, depending on where the
fetus falls in the womb, the child may be ambiguously sexed. For William
of Conches, the matter is an accident of topology and temperature: “if
[the sperm] lies on the right side, which is warmer from its proximity
to the liver, the fetus is fed by better and warmer blood, so becoming
male. But if it lies on the left side, which is colder, it becomes female;
if on the right, but a little toward the left, an effeminate man; if on the
left, but a little to the right, a manly woman.”56 Others too explain that
if the seed falls in the middle chamber of the womb, either nothing will
come to fruition or a hermaphrodite will issue (“yf hit so be-fall þat hit
be conceyvyde þer, hit schall have þe tokyn of man & of woman, þat
ys bothe yerde [penis] and wikket [vulva], as hit hath be seynne heere
be-fore in many cuntryes”).57 Women who desire a male or female child
should raise the hip opposite to that side on which they wish to conceive.
Every fetus basically starts life intersex or polymorphous, in the process
of being engendered from within an ambiguous space of becoming
(monstrous to some), until a set of highly contingent circumstances
determines the issue one way or another.58
Character, appearance, health, aptitude, and general well-being are
unpredictable permutations, and all emerge epigenetically. Nothing
is securely preformed.59 A fourteenth-century scholar wonders at the
amazing risks involved in reproduction, because such “a small difference
in the cause makes a very great difference in the outcome.”60 Granted,
“errors of nature” often are treated to explanations, as if that would
help.61 Many naturally attempt to control the process, whether through
scientific or magical methods. But sometimes one sees that a decisive

cause is purely accidental and comes like a sudden lightning bolt. The
idea is sometimes illustrated by means of that very image of an electric
shock: “if the lightning strikes at the moment of ejaculation, can the
influence of the planets be prevented, and are the male and female
seeds equally affected?” One commentator responded, “We reply that
it is possible for seed to be so altered and disposed by lightning that
the newborn child would not receive the influence of the planets that it
was due to receive at first.” The same text relates an anecdote, putatively
drawn from Albertus Magnus: the story is about a woman who gave
birth to a toad, of all things, because “at the moment of ejaculation
the seed was infected and badly disposed by the lightning,” seeing as
the “vapour of lightning is sometimes poisonous.”62 The conclusion
toward which all of the evidence points is that human gestation and
growth expose primordial sites of connection, cross-contamination,
and incompletion. Fetal life is indeed amphibious.


There are again important variations among the medieval authorities,

but nowhere in the science is the force of delayed animation and epi-
genesis taken out of account. Embryonic and infantile life requires so
many circumstantial catalysts, producing successive transitional species
within a single being. There is in the prenatal period no dependable
dualism (between mind and body, culture and nature, male and female),
as a conceived being is manifold and on the move. In fact, the embryo
is in transit between successive species, and it was conventional to find
statements like the following: “the embryo lives the life of a plant, then
the life of an animal, and afterwards the life of a human being.”63 That is
the dominant Aristotelian view of plurality adopted by Thomas Aquinas
and Giles of Rome, according to which the fetus grows by stages.64
Dante recapitulates the idea in a well-known passage: after seminal
fluids combine and coagulate, the fetus is successively insentient (like
a plant, “pianta”) and sentient (like a sea sponge, “spungo marino”),
before adopting an intellective soul infused by divine spirit.65 As Nicole
Oresme would write later in the same century, “there are many (or at least
several) intermediate species between sperm and a complete man.”66
These are entirely natural occurrences for the species, but they are no

less unpredictable for that. Nor can one say what has been produced
after birth, as though the issue were settled then. As Oresme remarks,

I believe that there is no one who knows or can know what size
and kind of variation of the members suffices for concluding that
it departs from the species [of its parents], and especially so right
at birth, since all fetuses, even the non-monstrous ones, are then
far from completion, both in members and in operations. Look at
the extent and nature of the differences in members and operations
needing precise specifications. For example, between Sortes at his
birth and at his maturity . . . there is surely a greater difference, if
you consider it well, than there is between a pig and a dog at birth,
or between an ass and a horse or mule, or a crow and an eagle, or
between a wolf and a dog, all of which are of different species.67

There are, in other words, greater species differences between birth and
maturity than between various kinds of animals. One is almost permitted
to posit a menagerie of living creatures within the human species, ex-
trapolating from the Aristotelian thesis that the embryo moves through
successive stages. Giles of Rome, among others who tended to treat the
issue of plurality more conservatively, argues that although the embryo
resembles one or another species of animal, “the organic fetal body is
not to be called a pig, a bear, or a monkey, but something immediately
disposed to becoming man.”68 Still, he describes the intermediate forms
the fetus takes beforehand, which are the more imperfect for their par-
tial speciation—or microspeciation. These ideas clear the ground for
interspecies conviviality of a nascent kind, anticipating by centuries
the evolutionary notion that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It is
as though everything were in place to determine that human and non-
human animals are coeval and share the same somatic history, about
which more must be said. For the time being, consider how identity is
relatively up for grabs in the prepersonal virtuality and viscerality of
human origins.
Oresme is surprised that the human develops at all, given the radical
flux of becoming, because “error can happen from many causes but only
in one way can it complete all things successfully—and for this one way
many things are required.”69 That humans successfully reproduce only

reinforces his faith in the order of nature. William of Conches sets out
the conventional understanding that “nature is a certain force implanted
in things, producing similar from similar. It is, therefore, the work of
nature that men are born of men, asses from asses, and so on.”70 But
given the unpredictable circulatory and metabolic processes involved
in procreation, nature also causes considerable anxiety, troubling such
assertions. Deformed issue suggests that any general principle of like-
from-like is too simple to apprehend what is at stake for an individual
embryo. There is something aleatory at work.
Medieval legal discourse and practice disclose similar anxieties
about the status of prenatal life, especially when addressing abortion
and specifically “abortion by assault”—leading to a potential charge of
double homicide in violence against a pregnant woman. Authorities who
spoke to these issues were not always in agreement, and while this is not
the place to ventilate the entire set of problems they encountered in de-
termining cases, a few examples suffice to reveal pervasive assumptions
about the contingency and temporality of early human development.71
A human only gradually comes into focus here. Exodus 21:22–23 in the
Vulgate Bible (following the Septuagint) distinguishes harm done to a
fetus at different gestational phases, formed versus unformed.72 “If men
quarrel, and one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry indeed, but
live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman’s
husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award. But if her death ensue
thereupon, he shall render life for life.” The passage became a touch-
stone for thinking about fetal development from Augustine on down
through to Thomas Aquinas. The early embryo was universally held to
be unformed, and as Gregory of Nyssa said back in the fourth century,
“it would not be possible to style the unformed embryo a human being,
but only a potential one.”73 Killing a gravid woman would be a double
homicide only in such a case when the fetus was to be considered a
legal person, which might occur at the moment of quickening, though
who can be certain? Thirteenth-century legal opinions reflect the same
doubt. Henry de Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England writes,
“If one strikes a pregnant woman or gives her poison in order to procure
an abortion, if the foetus is already formed or quickened, especially if
it is quickened, he commits homicide.”74 Yet some thought the deci-
sive moment came later, as per Andrew Horne’s Mirror of Justices: “Of

infants killed ye are to distinguish whether they be killed in their moth-

er’s womb or after their births; in the first case it is not adjudged murder;
for that none can judge whether it be a child before it be seen, and known
whether it be a monster or not.”75 The Britton law book states that no
prosecution can be brought against an abortion because the fetus lacks
a “name.”76 Abortion was seldom prosecuted, another indication of the
difficult business of judging epigenetic processes.77


We can broaden the scope of the inquiry further by considering examples

of animal embryology, because human biology is often considered as a
branch of zoology. In the natural sciences, the stimulus for a comparative
treatment of embryogenesis might have come from various quarters.
First, the earliest forms of dissection were of swine on the basis of their
supposed similarity to the human animal. As Giles of Rome notes, the
internal organs resemble those of the pig, and as we will see, comparisons
to animal anatomy did not stop there.78 As noted already, the developing
embryo is practically a zoo. Second, there was an early precedent for
studying eggs as model embryos, for both Hippocrates and Aristotle
generalized from the growth of chick eggs to describe human embryo-
genesis, and Hippocrates says an aborted six-day-old embryo looks
like a raw egg.79 Macrobius, alluding to the same example, elaborates
as follows: “Once the seed has been deposited in the mint where man is
coined, nature immediately begins to work her skill upon it so that on
the seventh day she causes a sack to form around the embryo, as thin
in texture as the membrane that lies under the shell of an egg, enclosing
the white.”80 And lastly, comparisons arise from the fact that animals
are sometimes thought to share the same basic etiology. In William of
Conches, all animate creatures are originally generated from the sea.81
On that view, different species emerged over time with various com-
plexions. Organisms differ because of the relative quantity and intensity
of elements. William alludes to an old doctrine of the “intension and
remission of qualities” (“intensiones qualitatum, remissiones earum”)
to explain the way transformations occur. “Organic bodies,” as he says,
“have different degrees of intensity in a [single] quality” (“in qualitate
intenduntur”), specifically of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water)

under the various conditions in which they are found (hot, cold, dry,
moist).82 Amazingly, then, new bodies may still be generated given the
ongoing flux and formative influence of elements and environments.
In William’s thinking, pre-Darwinian though it was, new species can
emerge if qualities and quantities take up new configurations. It is as
though life does not know its own intentions and animal propensities.
In a less sanguine mood, a medieval poet could point to the com-
mon origins and ends of all creatures of the elements. In the Vernon
lyric “This world fares as a fantasy,” the poet meditates on the general
transience of life, comparing the human life cycle to that of a gnat and
moth, no matter the apparent differences. Species difference is set aside
for effect—“Save that men beth [are] more slye, / All is o comparison.”83
The consequences of a comparative approach are interesting to
ponder. Albertus Magnus’s On Animals is a good example because he
takes epigenesis and embodiment to apply in the most general ways, on
the model of Aristotle’s History of Animals and Generation of Animals.
These are both zoological works, sometimes verging on botany, in any
case not confined to an exclusive anthropology. In fact, what stands out
is the constant commingling of faunal bodies. According to Albertus
in his chapter “A General Statement on the Modes of Reproduction in
Animals,” there are three main kinds of reproduction to be compared
on more or less of a biological continuum: viviparous, larvaparous, and
oviparous, all relatively homologous. Aristotle has structured his thought
similarly. Both teach that the egg is an external womb, and the womb is
effectively an egglike environment. In either case, “everything which is
generated from spermatic moisture, whether it be in the womb or in an
egg, has the substance and power of its generation whether that fluid be
in a womb or in an egg.”84 Animals and humans are said to participate
in the same process no matter the precise gestational routes: “nature,
according to its participation in more or fewer powers, progresses gradu-
ally through many intermediates from the inanimate to the animate.
For amid the simple inanimate and the animate there occurs a complex
mixture of the digested and coagulated, and many other things of this
sort, all of which are steps approaching the complexion of an animate
body, even though it may not appear so.” So many “intermixtures”
and “coagulations” make it difficult, as indicated earlier, to identify the
“boundaries of animate and the inanimate and the midpoints which

lie between them.”85 In other words, differences are matters of degree,

not kind, in these embryological states of half-being. “There are many
graduations in the nature of animalness.”86 In a methodological musing
at the start of the eleventh book, Albertus explains that he proceeds by
considering commonalities first: “For example, we say that the bird,
according to genus, and the human, according to genus, are the same
thing with respect to genus. And thus some have said that a human,
with respect to its genus, is a bird, and a bird, with respect to its genus,
is a human.”87 This is leaving out all the various differentiae that con-
stitute species of course, but it is nevertheless an accurate description
of commonalities. And it is to this level of generality that On Animals
is devoted, where different animals and plants are seen as congeners
populating different spaces. His two-seed theory is a theory of how
animals, including humans, reproduce; his account of humors and or-
gans is of those of any animal whatsoever. All animals and plants have
sperm. When it comes to describing reproduction and gestation of the
embryo, Albertus also rehearses a version of recapitulation theory that
includes animals under the same genus. As they change, humans and
other animals are plotted along a continuum, though they grow away
from a shared starting point.
Albertus emphasizes not absolute distinctions but comparanda.
There is a strong emphasis, internally in relation to subcutaneous or-
gans, circulation, and metabolism, and externally in relation to forms
and functions, on intersomatic identity. In generalizing about animal
morphology, he elaborates on shared traits: how the organs of the brain,
liver, esophagus, and lungs are in agreement; how animals respond to
cold and heat.88 Albertus observes that lions and elephants are like hu-
mans in that they put their right foot forward when walking, another
striking parallel for him (no matter if humans are bipedal).89 The upshot
of comparisons is that other animals are constitutively alike, and to bor-
row Jeffrey Cohen’s words, “proximate strangers.”90 That sort of intimacy
across a spectrum is enabled and substantiated by such discussions as
Albertus’s, where human and animal are not just represented but em-
bodied as cross-species beings within a shared zoogony. The potential
for crossing species, as we will see, also exists in marvellous stories of
feral children, those rare infants brought up by animals with the result
that they become not (only) human.


Evolutionary biology suggests that when humans became bipedal and

developed upright posture, they gained some adaptive advantages at a
cost to individual survival. Maintaining a narrow pelvis needed to re-
main erect and hands-free entailed an “early” parturition. The human
newborn is therefore “altricial . . . compared with that of our closest
primate relatives . . . partly due to the need to pass a large-brained infant
through an inflexible pelvis at a relatively early stage of development
compared with anthropoid apes.” Consequently, humans give birth to
“premature” neonates. The first three months postpartum have been
described as a “fourth trimester,” during which something approximat-
ing a womblike environment must still be maintained.91
Medieval obstetric and pediatric medicine responded to the physi-
cal challenges, addressing such common things as perineal tearing,
hemorrhaging, and hernias, among other complications that can affect
the health of mother and child.92 Writers regularly discuss the awkward
narrowness of the birth canal and recommend various techniques to
deal with the malposition of the fetus at the moment of delivery. And
unsurprisingly, parents were exercised and exhausted by the require-
ments of caring for a newborn during the critical months after birth,
providing a kind of second womb.93 At that point, of course, the burden
is conventionally said to shift from “nature” to “nurture,” as a newborn is
delivered over to social networks, enabling further formation. It is from
the bears of medieval bestiaries that we get the notion of being “licked
into shape,” supplying an apt image. “For they say that they produce
unformed offspring, and to give birth to a kind of meat that the mother,
by licking, fashions into body parts. But this produced a premature birth:
in short they give birth on the thirtieth day, wherefore it happens that
the hastened gestation produced unformed offspring.”94 The newborn
child is similarly premature and unformed, and it is in this context of
continuing ontogeny that nature and nurture are in fact quite hard to
separate. We enter a decisive phase of biosocial development.
Granted, medical routines and techniques seem less natural and
necessary than regulative, exemplifying what Monica Green means
by describing some aspects of medieval medicine as Realbiologie.95
Caregivers naturalize the social order through various means, bringing

susceptible bodies—that is, those of mother and child—in line with ex-
pectations of healthy normality. But we should resist a reductive view of
the child, whose flourishing is no mere social construction. The human
is a biological and social assembly, a process coselected by nature and
culture, as it were. “For children to survive,” as one historian observes,
“they need not only to be nursed, fed, and kept warm (biology), but also
to be played with and talked to (culture), or they cannot be socialized.”96
We may come up with different lists (arguing that nursing, among other
practices associated with biology, is shot through with ideology), but
the point stands: specific repertoires of behavior are set in motion by
bodily need as much as they are conditioned by culture. There has to
be some compatibility between them, however much that is subject to
cultural change. Of course, some behaviors are historically more specific
than others: in the medieval period, there were cesarean deliveries, on
one hand, and emergency baptisms, on the other.97 The second is not
considered so necessary anymore. This is all to say that gynecological
and obstetric medicine is not at all naive about its role in the process
and in fact embodies a pragmatism that should not be lost in the fol-
lowing analysis. In this section, I want to move discussion beyond the
all-too-human nexus of biopolitics to show that nothing can be taken
for granted in the undertaking. I insist on the fact not to naturalize
medieval methods but, on the contrary, to show that subject formation
depends on further epigenetic processes.
For our medievals, such was obviously the case beginning with
childbirth. Only the Virgin Mary experienced none of the agony, risk,
filth, and humiliation associated with regular births: Christ’s appearance
represented an unattainably pure ideal.98 In everyday life, things were
different.99 The mid-fifteenth-century “Mirror of the Periods of Man’s
Life” describes birth as an epic struggle:

How mankinde dooth bigynne

is wondir for to scryve [describe] so;
In game he is bigoten in synne,
Þe child is þe modris deedli foo [foe];
Or þei be fulli partide on tweyne,
In perelle of deed [death] ben boþe two.100

Writers and practitioners approached the perinatal period in ways that

suggest a keen sense of the risks involved for prospective parents and
children, understanding that pregnancy and parturition inevitably pose
physical and emotional perils, especially given high rates of infant mor-
tality. The Dance of Death tradition is expressive of the challenges, ad-
dressing a child who is “but late borne, / Shape [Fated] yn this worlde to
have no plesaunce.” The infant is an interloper, arriving only to depart the
world (“I cam but now and now I go my wai”), joining Death.101 Much
energy was expended on avoiding the sad lot of about one-third of all
births. And so everyone needed to be pragmatic. An English medical
guide devotes a chapter to the grief women experience in childbirth (“þe
grevaunces þat wommen have in beryng of her chyldren”), explaining
that the head should emerge from the womb first. Sixteen unnatural
modes of birth require the deft hands and composure of a midwife to
maneuver the infant into position for safe extraction.102 Another ver-
nacular treatise catalogs all the various things that may hamper proper
delivery, “ryȝht delyverance.” Causes include the following:

yf sche be angury or prowde or schamfull, or ellys þat hit be here

fyrst chylde, or ellys þat sche be small & megyr of body or ellys
over-fatt, or þat þe matryce [uterus] be febyll or in ovyre-gret
het [overheated] or elys þat chylde be dysturbyde with summe
knot in þe nek of þe matrice or les[t] þat þe mouthe of þe marys
[uterus] be to clos or tornyde in þe on syde or on þe othyre, or
ellys yf sche have þe stonne, or ellys yf here bouelle be over-replet
[her bowel overfull] of þe gret urynne for defaute of dygestyon, or
ellys yf þe chylde have over-gret a hede or body, or [if he have oþer
membres then he sholde have of resoun, or] yf hit hathe dropsy or
oþer evyls, or dede, or turnyde a-gayn kynde [against nature].103

Various remedies are recommended. Palliative techniques were prof-

fered. It is hardly surprising that the threshold of life is treated as though
it were a threat to life (see Plate 1).
After delivery, the newborn is in a state of extreme vulnerability
given the situation (humoral and otherwise), and everyone was mind-
ful that the human body and character are formed—or, if neglected,
deformed—based on the quality of care. A newborn needs constant

monitoring, especially in the first several months, when, according to

Bartholomeaus, “a child nediþ alwey tendre and softe kepinge, fedinge,
and norischinge.”104 The child is fragile and may require medical at-
tention: “Þe childes fleische þat is newe ibore is tendir, neische [soft],
quavy [moist], and unsad [infirm]. Þerfore divers medicines and fodes
ben nedeful to þe childe.”105 Nurses are to swathe and rub the infant’s
body, clean and stimulate the mouth, and bathe and anoint the child.
Moreover, the newborn is to be kept in a darkened room to allow the
eyes to adjust properly (bright light is liable to cause children to develop
a squint), as the senses are still under development.106 Another textbook
describes how “the child is to be received in a place as similar as possible
to the womb, because a sudden change is harmful.”107 The assumption
is that the uterine experience is in some ways to be replicated and
prolonged, exemplifying the idea of a “fourth trimester” in practice.
But the emphasis is also on preparing the newborn for life outside the
womb. The nurse is to bind and shape the pliable newborn body: “for
tendirnes of þe lymes [limbs] of þe childe mai esiliche [easily] and sone
[soon] bowe and bende and take divers schappis [shapes], and þerfore
children membres and lymes ben ibounden wiþ listis [strips of cloth]
and oþir covenable bondes þat þay [i.e., limbs] be nouȝt croked nothir
yvel ischapte [misshaped].”108 The tissues of the body are soft and pliable
and must be solidified through practical regimens (involving rubs, baths,
and blankets), not just for the purposes of health. Nurses are responsible
for making the infant shapely.109 The infant should also sleep much and
be rocked to expunge “fumosites [vapors] in his brayne.”110 The Trotula
has a section called “De regimine infantis” with further specifications.
Here women learn among numerous other things that the newborn’s
ears are to be pressed; the umbilical cord tied at a certain length; the
palate anointed with honey and various parts cleaned; the limbs mas-
saged and “restrained and joined by bandages, and its features ought
to be straightened, that is, its head, forehead, and nose”; some sleep-
ing medicine should be given; the eyes should be covered.111 A Middle
English version follows this advice closely, offering still more information
about keeping a child within the first few days and months.112 The child
is to be washed daily and nursed regularly, and then weaned between
the first and second year, when teeth develop.113 Feeding was another
important topic. A wet nurse must beware of “evel melk and of corupt

norischinge and fedinge, þat children ben nouȝt ifed þerwiþ”; that is, a
newborn must not receive such a diet lest he or she experience a vari-
ety of ailments, infections, or malnutrition. Nurses should be “reuled
in good diete” to ensure the quality of milk; they are taught to avoid
anxiety and get enough sleep.114 Of course, anyone could recognize that
much depends on nutrition and environmental factors: “For of good
disposicioun of milke foode comeþ good disposicioun of þe childe.”115
Medieval “feral child” stories dramatized what is at stake in the pro-
vision of good nurture, showing through counterexample what might
otherwise occur: children might lose their human disposition, or fail
to develop in the first place, when raised in the wild to eat, run, and
howl like the wolf children in Peter of Erfurt’s Chronica, Caesarius of
Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum, or Jacques de Vitry’s Sermones.116
That a child is so subject to contingencies confirms that the identity of
an infant is for the time being uncertain, as was widely recognized in
less sensationalized accounts of the matter. As Oresme writes, “it always
must be doubted whether a child or fetus be a human until it is seen
whether it can use reason.”117 He is wondering about the condition of a
badly misshapen baby, opting for a calm and gradual assessment of the
child’s abilities: “a question arises here. If a woman bears a fetus in the
shape of a pig or monkey or cat or fish or etc., what should I maintain
[on the question] whether it is a human or pig or cat or etc.? or whether
it is a new species in the world, generated de novo? I respond that there
is great uncertainty about this.”118 He believes that if several other ba-
sic conditions are satisfied (if the baby derives from man’s sperm and
woman’s womb; the gestation period was normal; the baby has a heart
and intellect), indeed, the issue is probably human.119
The proto-human life of the infant may in any case seem to resemble
that of an animal, a claim that is made so often in the literature that we
easily fail to notice the obvious implications. For example, Ratis Raving,
a fifteenth-century Scottish poem, describes infancy as a time when
children, unable to speak, walk, or reason, are like beasts, excepting
that they can at least laugh and cry.120 Aquinas said of young children
that, so long as they lack the “use of reason,” they are not different than
an “irrational animal.”121 Albertus earlier said of children, “These no
more employ intellect during their infancy with respect to the powers
of the soul than do the brute animals. However, if one pays attention
to them, there will often appear tendencies towards those dispositions,

crafts, and businesses which they will exercise more perfectly after-
wards in their adulthood, when they do employ their intellect.”122 The
difference in each case is slight but significant: if infants do not reason,
at least they show “tendencies” toward maturity. And of course, most
will learn to talk and walk. Human growth nevertheless puts pressure
on a reflexive anthropocentrism because the human is for the moment
reduced to lesser functions, which William of Conches for one associ-
ates with mere sensation. At an infantile stage, the body is sustained by
autonomic “natural virtues” consisting in appetitive, retentive, digestive,
and expulsive functions.123 Sleep and respiration are of the same order.
All are rudimentary animal functions on which humans will come to
depend in the future too, no matter their age.
Comparisons to animal vitality may actually sell other animals short,
however, because, as Albertus Magnus well knows, some show them-
selves more capable and rational than infants: “animals other than the
human are not entirely without the power of thought. What occurs in
them after they have grown is like what occurs in the children.”124 He
describes in detail the way various grown animals demonstrate pru-
dence, family piety, medicine, song, foresight, memory, imagination,
industry, and an understanding of language. Albertus’s theory is one of
participative nature: animals take part in the same powers of soul that
are available to humans. Monkeys are only comparatively less rational
than humans, for as one of the bestiaries says, they are called simia
because of the “great similitude of human reason in them.”125 Of course,
to avoid the implications that the human is no more than a simulacra,
young children must learn to stand fully erect, use abstract reason,
and speak, to list some things Albertus requires.126 For the time being,
however, the child is a mere proto-hominid. Nor is the human adult
into which a child grows always or in all circumstances superior, and a
more extreme contrast can be found in William Langland. He rehearses
the usual idea that some animals show sexual restraint, unlike man,
who lusts “out of resoun.”127 He has a troubling vision of the allegorical
personage Reason guiding a host of animals and not men. The bestiaries
especially teach readers to attend to the examples animals set for hu-
mans, noting, for example, that the latter “oppress the innocent,” unlike
the compassionate lion.128 Earlier, William of Conches describes other
“functions of the soul that are common to ourselves and brute animals
and in which we are outdone by brute animals. For the lynx sees more

sharply than humans, a dog smells more keenly, the hare moves faster.”129
At around the same time, Adelard of Bath argued that human reason
is supposed to compensate for the lack—“I mean reason, by which he
excels the very brute animals so much that they are tamed by it, and,
once tamed, bridles are put on them, and, once bridled, they are put to
various tasks. Thus you see how much the gift of reason is superior to
bodily instruments.”130 Albertus comes to a similar conclusion: “There
are those . . . who hold that the human body is not suitably disposed by
nature but has the worst disposition of all the animals since it is bare,
lacking hair, and is born weak in body and unable to go forth and raise
up its body in its first age. It has neither hooves to protect its feet nor
horns or other natural weapons suitable for a strong defense.” Humans
must therefore supplement nature in different ways. “A human’s hand,
then, takes the place in him of a hoof and of a sharp, curved claw. The
same is true for a lance, sword, and generally, all his other instruments.
For he can make and manipulate all of these with his hand.”131
Supplementation and mutual dependency go to the heart of the mat-
ter of the child, as implied not just in animal husbandry and tool making
but also in how humans must learn to walk and talk from the beginning.
We may relate such biosocial becomings to Derrida’s treatments of in-
nate insufficiency: here the newborn, requiring the supplements and
supports of culture and language, expresses a disability that is a “natural
weakness,” leading Derrida to ask, “How is a child possible in general?”132
Only with an apparatus of culture and technical prostheses does one
have a future in human society, and we can specify that it is only thanks
to so many nonhuman agencies, instruments, media, and other matters
that one can have a life at all. We are natural-born cyborgs.133 A human
neonate ultimately appears to be less like an animal than a derelict and
derivative human, which is liable to seem a humiliating, strange sort of
condition. One must be licked into shape.


Spiritual care is a crucial ingredient in the formation of the child, and

the earliest ritual ceremony of baptism is intended to address and
redress the issue. The rite ensured in so many ways that the “child had
crossed the threshold from a state of limbo, as Dante described the circle

of hell in which the unbaptized resided, and moved into the struggle
for survival within the network of family and community.”134 Baptism
was critical, because without this ritual, a child might not be saved,
never mind properly socialized, and the idea was that “the child was
not considered truly human until the ceremony [of washing] was per-
formed.”135 The time between birth and baptism was considered perilous
and without spiritual or social assurance against diabolical influence.136
The baptismal rite was a matter to be arranged right after birth, and
by midwives in an emergency, if a priest could not attend.137 Normally
godparents would accompany the newborn to the parish church, where
the priest undertook the exorcism, anointing, washing, and naming.
The godparents were sponsors, pledging themselves according to the
doctrine of the “faith of another,” which required godparents to receive
the sacrament on the child’s behalf.138 Many consequences flowed from
this ritual:

The name the child was given would identify it for the rest of its
life, even if it failed to survive the baptismal ordeal by more than
a few hours. Its birth order and sex would influence its relation-
ship with its family. Its first social network outside the family was
established with the godparents and perhaps a nurse. The rela-
tionship of the child to its godparents and that of the godparents
to one another and to the child’s parents would form part of the
child’s life. The broader network included the parish in which the
baptism occurred. Baptism was the beginning of the development
of an individual’s social network.139

And moreover, the Christian name connected the child to the god-
parents (from whom children’s names were usually adopted), forming
a kind of “spiritual kinship network” with them and with the saints. A
surname would usually identify the child’s origins or family craft.140 But
naming always does more, as Judith Butler reminds us in noting the
likely conferral of sexual difference, “shift[ing] an infant from an ‘it’ to
a ‘she’ or a ‘he,’ and in that naming, the girl is ‘girled,’ brought into the
domain of language and kinship through the interpellation of gender.”141
As Lacan would say, naming is an assimilation to the Nom-du-Père.142
It is the introduction of the child into the paternal, symbolic order. But

we can be more specific about how this order functioned in the past.
One scholar attributes the medieval “cultural construction of childhood”
to a series of initiating rites: baptism, confirmation, and communion.
Before baptism, the infant was “an imperfect body, irrational and cor-
rupted with original sin.”143 Some determined that the unbaptized who
perished were to be buried outside the cemetery, even separated from
the burial of the woman who died in childbirth.144 The assumption was
that, as Aquinas argued, a child was to be properly incorporated into the
Christian community by means of baptism. Only then does the child,
now born again, belong to the Father. Otherwise one is hardly born at all.
Legends of deformed progeny transformed into beautiful children
by means of baptism drive the point home. The Middle English ro-
mance The King of Tars tells the story about how, to prevent further
bloodshed in an already disastrous war, a nameless Christian princess
agrees to marry the Saracen king of Damascus and soon finds herself
pregnant. She delivers a formless and lifeless lump (“For lim [limb] no
hadde it non”), a bloodless and boneless thing lacking recognizably hu-
man physiognomy (“Wiþouten blod & bon / . . . noiþer nose no eye”),
a mere gobbet representing more of an undifferentiated mass of flesh
than even a monster. It is an extreme case that tests spiritual powers to
shape a human life. The king appeals to his heathen gods, to no avail, in
a bid to supply form to “þe flesche.” Only when brought before a priest
and baptized does the thing miraculously transform into a beautiful
child (“when þat it cristned was / It hadde liif & lim & fas [face], / &
crid wiþ gret deray [noise]”).145 Through the grace of God, vested in the
sacraments administered by a priest, the child becomes extremely fair
and well shaped, causing the heathen king to convert to Christianity.
What better illustration of the power of the Nom-du-Père? Jane Gilbert
argues that the events rearticulate Aristotelian hylomorphism on the
ideological plane, where paternity is identified with the Father God.
First, a lump of flesh lacking vitality signifies that “the paternal role has
failed,” which in this context is not a biological claim but an assumption
about the power of religion over biology.146 Then proper form is granted
through baptism, which aligns the functions of the earthly father with
God, converting the former in the process, referring the events to su-
perior spiritual realities. Ultimately, the text makes an argument about
the role of culture and religion in the biosocial becoming of the human,

granting these nurturing forces more power than nature. As Geraldine

Heng says, “Christianity . . . operates as a discourse of both culture and
biology” in this romance, where the ramifications for both are worked
out in order to achieve rapprochement.147
An extreme case, for sure, though the problem is no innovation of
romance fantasy. The medieval doctrine of baptism already verged on
the issue. Infant baptism was often subject to controversy owing to the
recognition that a newborn does not come to the baptismal font out
of capability or consent and that greater faith will need to be shown in
future works. According to Lateran IV in 1215, first communion was
to be held off until the age of discretion (because infants could hardly
consume the wafer and might instead play with the host), “symboliz[ing]
the child’s entry into the world of adult spirituality.”148 Until then, the
infant could not reason or believe unaided and was otherwise unable
to communicate as an individual.149 At best, baptism promised through
collective effort to hold off some of the worst prospects for a child. It
was the start of a process of spiritual growth, except for a child who died
prematurely. The cases I have considered so far—in which children are
assimilated to religious culture—put us in mind of something perilous
anyway. That infants have no identity apart from what they inherit
makes them vulnerable beyond anything else and may well explain the
contemporary fascination with violence done to them.150 Is there not a
recognition that children are sacrificed to purposes about which they
know nothing and cannot protest? Children bear the burden of “culture.”
In themselves, sacred ceremonies and all of the other forms of care
for children do not eliminate the initial phase of humanity that amounts
to a crying and babbling that remains, if highly expressive, at the edges
of identity and self-respect. Naming a child does not cover over the fact
that the child cannot speak his or her own name. The Lacanian paternal
function is therefore not omnipotent in its effect, cannot complete the
epigenetic process of socialization. Christopher Fynsk writes, “The
being that accedes to language is by definition prior to this accession,
‘infans.’”151 As medieval writers well knew, the infans embodies an “un-
speaking” term of life.152 In Bartholomaeus, infancy is defined in the
customary way: “And suche a child hatte [named] infans in latyn, þat is
to mene ‘nouȝt spekynge,’ for he may nouȝt speke noþir sowne [sound]
his wordes profitabliche, for here teeþ be nouȝt ȝet parfitliche igrowe

and isette in ordere. So seiþ Isidore.”153 So whatever symbolic lacquer

may be applied to this condition, the infant cries as a matter of fact—an
ambiguous sign that could signify vitality and mortality. There is no
eliminating the real by accession to the symbolic, then. Crying is of
recurrent interest to medieval writers and shows that more is required
to recuperate the inarticulate life of the proto-body of the infant. It was
widely believed that children cry in pain. William of Conches says that
“because the child has been fed in heat and moisture while the earth
into which it comes forth is cold and dry, it senses the contrast and lets
out a wailing cry. So the first cry of the human being is a cry of pain.”154
There is sometimes an attempt to differentiate the voice of the child. “If a
child is male he naturally has a coarser voice than a female. Women say
that a male cries ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’ because ‘A’ makes a courser sound than
‘E,’ and the opposite seems to be true of girls, for they have a thinner
voice and cry ‘Ay! Ay!’”155 The cry is a noise that is hard to manage in
any case, denoting the agony and humiliation of a babbling, bare life: a
not-yet-rational or redeemed humanity. Medieval physicians and mid-
wives recommended practical remedies to cope.156 Language does not
follow naturally but must be taught, stimulated with “different kinds of
pictures, cloths of diverse colors, and pearls placed in front of the child,
and one should use nursery songs and simple words.”157 Yet there is no
guaranteed outcome, as speech impairments could always render an
adult infans, unable to produce the sounds that signal human maturity
and superiority.158 Learning to talk and walk is essential but not entirely
natural or cultural; they are indeed biosocial advancements. Articulacy
and mobility owe themselves to nurturing supplements of one kind or
another, including baby talk and walkers.159 What would one be with-
out such nonnatural supports? In one version of the Dance of Death,
a newborn who will not survive infancy struggles to give voice to his
predicament: “A a a a worde I can not speke / I am so ȝonge I was bore
ȝisterdai.”160 The fact that such a child will never learn to speak or dance
at all makes this stammering expression of pain all the more poignant
and paradoxical, suggesting again that the infant is at this stage some-
what oblique (not to say a real danger) to an ideal flourishing humanity.
The newborn is not delivered as something already perfected and
can seem in one aspect immature, abnormal, infirm. But the newborn
delivers something new and beloved into the world, and that is precisely

what is so fascinating about the medieval evidence of how people cared

for infant life. Owing to children’s trois infirmités—small size, defi-
cient mental capacity, and lack of speech—they have been compared
to dwarves, idiots, and the dumb.161 This kind of original privation has
been seen as evidence of the marginalization of infancy in the medieval
mentalité, proof that in “une société adultocentriste,” children were bound
to be abject or indifferent members.162 Because of the several disabilities,
“l’enfance est dévaluée.”163 The notion smacks of the obsolete thesis of
Phillippe Ariès, who argued that, for most of the Middle Ages, chil-
dren under seven did not count for much because of their immaturity
and expendability, a claim scholars have subsequently and repeatedly
confuted.164 The point I have been developing is rather that medieval
writers showed great interest in the infirmities of embryos and infants
precisely because they speak to something virtually inhumanizing (if not
dehumanizing) that adults cannot ignore about the human condition.
What is notable is the powerful affection for children despite their failure
to fulfill the criteria that determine the concept of the human. Child
abuse and abandonment are exceptions that prove the rule. Surveying
the literature on infant baptism, William MacLehose reaches a similar
conclusion: “In the negative images of the infant, he was simultaneously
subhuman—he could not yet walk, reason, or believe—and quintessen-
tially human in that he was sinful and in need of redemption. The child
here became the vehicle for a dramatic representation of the extreme
vulnerability of human nature.”165 Infancy is the site of a profound ethical
relation to that sort of vulnerability and virtual being.


A large body of literature explores these tensions, and next I want to

consider texts in which infancy is scaled to other purposes, including
political, theological, and cosmological applications. As we have seen,
infancy fails to meet the usual benchmarks of humanity (reasoning,
speaking, bipedalism, etc.), and the condition is not always considered
temporary. The question to address now is whether the human is ever
brought to term, implying, of course, that throughout life, the creature
is underdeveloped but ever growing to some unrealized end. If so, the
human is something like an absolute asymptote or, in embryological

terms, constitutively neotenic, retaining features of a juvenile stage of

development, maturation having been permanently suspended. To dwell
on this recurrent issue is to think not just about biological origins but
also about the available configurations of the human that go to structure
adult experience and expectations of life and afterlife. It is to reflect on
a universal becoming, and so on collective dependency and virtuality.
In this context, we could perhaps consider any number of similar
constructs that describe the neonatal condition of the soul, for example,
talk of the soul as a child in the charge of an ever-present nurse (God or
some proxy spiritual figure) or as an embryo awaiting future parturition
in death (when tomb becomes womb and, in pictorial examples from
the period, infant-shaped souls are seen departing the body).166 One can
find references to spiritual nurslings, as when, in Langland Christ, “bad
hem souke for synne save at his breste.”167 Chaucer’s Prioress speaks of
herself as an infant who cannot express the joys of Mary, embracing a
similarly immature guise.168 The faithful had ample biblical precedent
to strive toward an imitatio infantium.169 Christian salvation consists in
being “born again,” reemerging from the womb (in John 3), as is also
suggested in some visual depictions of Christ’s wound as a womb, his
vulnera a vulva.170 The cradle of life and death are recurring motifs, and
it is notable that in many other cultures, too, death is a kind of mortuary
labor and delivery.171 Death is an idealized state of repose in embryonic
or infantile existence. To take just one apparently pagan remnant in late
medieval English literature, the Old Man in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale
expresses a desire to reenter his mother’s womb as if to dissolve into a
prenatal, vascular, embryonic state. He knocks his stick on the ground
that is “my moodres gate” and pleads with anguish, “Leeve mooder, leet
me in!”172 His wish resonates with Job 1:21: “Naked came I out of my
mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the
Lord hath taken away.”
Yet I want to consider two complex fourteenth-century literary
examples that push in unexpected directions toward a transvaluation
of the child and that end up virtualizing the human thereby. The first
case is Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, a long prose confession and
dialogue that deploys the infant figure in an attempt to excuse the politi-
cal subject from some shady public affairs in London. Here the author
is called to become an infant again by a consoling maternal figure, his

allegorical wet nurse Love. Instead of graduating from meat to milk,

Usk is to revert to suckling: she demands that he put away “potages
of foryetfulnesse” and drinks of “ignorance” and return to “the olde
soukyng whiche thou haddest of me,” representing true understand-
ing.173 Later on, Love will warn him to avoid the false love of Solomon’s
strumpet from whose “pappes” he would “not souke mylke of helthe,
but deedly venym and poyson corrupcion of sorowe.”174 The matter is
urgently topical and not merely a fashionable trope: for we know that
Usk is defending himself against accusations of political corruption and
betrayal, so that his infantalization probably figures the insecurity of
the situation and represents an exculpatory move to protect the author
from charges of independent action (i.e., the treason for which he was
eventually executed in 1388). Laying himself in the lap of Love may also
express a wish to win back the public affection Usk had lost. Put like
this, however, one would think his rhetoric is merely self-serving and
diplomatic, when in fact his recourse to the infant figure permits him
to dwell on what it means to be an amateurish, immature human. Usk
counts himself among the “chyldren of trouthe,”175 writing about a truth
that precedes politics and opens up ethical dimensions. Usk discourses
at length on desire, reason, grace, works, and will, engaging in a kind of
speculative moral anthropology in which he anatomizes the subject and
shows that human flourishing is dependent on the gifts of others. The
social milieu on which one must count—and the exposure and exterior-
ity of human life implied thereby—ends up impugning the spontaneity
of individual will.176 The matter of the child is a means by which the
author attempts to articulate his highest aspirations and, more specifi-
cally, express a prophetic desire to enter what he calls the House of Joy.
Only “childrens tonges” open the door.177 Usk’s infantile persona bears
comparison to Dante’s earlier in the century. The Italian poet had styled
himself as a babbling “fante” (infant), establishing a thematic connection
by means of echoic wordplay with his name, “Dante.”178 Medieval writers
with literary ambitions often play with infancy and take up a childlike
stance, an issue to which I will return later in the book.
Usk’s Testament is intended as an expression of love for a vaguely
allegorical pearl-maiden (Margaret), elevating what could seem to be
mere polemic to more lofty realms of moral philosophy and even pro-
phetic speech. Another contemporary work to consider is the Middle

English Pearl, a stunning elegiac poem that features a different beloved

marguerite, this time a deceased child. Here we visit the intersection of
infancy and eschatology but more generally are invited to consider the
virtues of childlike faith and the paternal function again. The dreamer
receives a vision of his predeceased infant daughter (“faunt”), a girl who
“lyfed not two ȝer in oure þede [our region].”179 In the dream she appears
in the form of an adolescent girl.180 It is as if the apparition recollects in
inverted form the pictorial convention of the soul departing the body
in baby form—for here an infant soul departs and reappears as a young
adult. Practically speaking, the poet needs her to be grown up enough
to take the most serious speaking part in the poem. Theologically, the
grown-up two-year-old girl embodies the promise of resurrection as
then understood.181 Still, we see that her infancy is key to the figuration
of the afterlife and to the communication of an ineffable but consoling
truth. Death and infancy are related in many other spheres, and it is not
surprising to find the phantom figure here, residing in the interstitial
zone between animacy and inanimacy. Agamben says infants stand on
the threshold of death and life, and Blanchot makes the point that the
infant is uniquely subject to death in the exposure to life. The infant is
always dying to enter language.182 We may usefully think of the “faunt” as
incurring death the better to express something numinous and, for those
who remain living, almost null. The infant is deliberately posed as a con-
fusing, polymorphous figure. In Pearl, the infant speaks from the grave;
as infans, she limns posthumously what is incommensurable to ordinary
language and logic, one of the major preoccupations of the poem.183
It is precisely the logic of an infant’s posthumous life that so con-
founds. The dreamer and daughter debate the fate of those who did not
have enough time on earth to serve God. He thinks that as a two-year-
old, she could not have earned such honor in heaven. She invokes the
parable of the vineyard and thereby alludes to a theological topos that
pertains to the fate of those who died young: the first shall be last and the
last shall be first in heaven, something that seems entirely unreasonable
to the father.184 He thinks the girl is babbling about things she does not
completely understand, which only goes to show his ignorance and, he
might have thought, confirms her infancy. Infancy puzzles the father
even as—in the intimacy of the encounter—the girl initiates him into
a new and perplexing spiritual order that makes childlikeness a central

feature.185 The girl makes reference to Christ’s words in Luke 18: “Jesus
þenne hem swetely sayde: / ‘Do way, let chylder unto Me tyȝt [come].’”186
Now it is doubly important that the object of the dreamer’s vision is
a girl-child, serving as a productive contrast with everything represented
by paternal law, language, and economy. All infants are proto-human as
then understood, but the girl is considered least developed of all because
she will fall short of paradigmatic male personhood. She announces
life just as every infant does, but now, in the afterlife, as one who is by
standard definitions the most immature and inarticulate. The idea gains
traction on the assumption that a child is never a fully vicarious life
for a parent but remains an interruption in the order of the symbolic.
No Nom-du-Père is powerful enough. Indeed, against any reading that
would see the infant as always on the wrong side of the symbolic, the
privation and separateness of the child may articulate another vital
order quite apart from law and language. Levinas adumbrates the idea
in his theory of paternity—which is meant to stand in counterpoint to
the notion of Lacan. A new birth marks the parental implication in the
life of another, where the parent begins to identify with the child who
is a stranger (of me but not myself ), complicating paternity immensely.
This situation produces a pluralized, noncoincidental identity that is an
opening onto, if not the very imprimatur of, the ethical relation. “The
fact of seeing the possibilities of the other as your own possibilities, of
being able to escape the closure of your identity and what is bestowed
on you, towards something which is not bestowed on you and which is
nevertheless yours—this is paternity. This future beyond my own be-
ing, this dimension constitutive of time, takes on a concrete content in
paternity.”187 The child is consequently an absolute future with which
a parent stands in the most intimate relationship but cannot master.
Levinas has been rightly criticized for his focus on the father–son dyad,
but the structural relationship of infant and parent, which Levinas elu-
cidates, is forceful and is the more conspicuous in something like the
father–daughter relationship of Pearl.
That the girl is like grain sprouting new plant growth at the begin-
ning of the poem, and that she is transfigured by death into a precious
pearl, anticipates something we will notice later about radical alchemi-
cal transmutations. Occult ideas about the recapitulation of the cosmos
in miniature cluster around the invocation of the pearl-maiden (seed,

egg, and pearl are all beloved metaphors of alchemy).188 For now we
should see in the “faunt” the advent of the eschaton (radical futurity,
novelty, new life), promising the recommencement of existence in an-
other register, evoked in a strange composite of mineral, vegetable,
and human. She is the negation of one sort of human superiority even
as she apparently apotheosizes the human in spirit. She manifests a
transfigured posthuman future, embodying a virtual being who has
become trasumanar, to borrow Dante’s coinage: “Trasumanar significar
per verba / non si poria / però l’essemplo basti / a cui esperienza grazia
serba” (“‘Transhumanize’—it cannot be explained / per verba, so let
this example serve / until God’s grace grants the experience”).189 The
otherworldly refulgence of Beatrice, who gazes on the bright spheres,
transfixes Dante. Coming to the limits of what is sayable, Dante invents
a term to describe his transport. Like the English poet in a way, he sees
in the child an inexpressible and confounding reality beyond, transcend-
ing the human. He is reduced to infans in the beatitude of the moment.
What these examples show is that natality and infancy outlast child-
hood and go to structure some of the most important relations one
can have in public and private life. They represent virtual ontogenetic
conditions that are perhaps never escaped. Medieval writers see that
nativity and infancy constitute creaturely vulnerabilities and vibrancies
that penetrate into the future without end.


By this point, it is clear that human gestation and growth narratives

can occasion much drama and describe a multiplicity of flex points,
contact zones, and conduits whereby elements converge and energy
is conducted. Here are some of the most vital spatiotemporal and in-
tercorporal zones where the particular verges on the general, the mi-
cro and macro are co-implicated, and organic and inorganic become
braided together. In some respects, this picture recalls the main lines
of the premodern episteme as described by Foucault.190 In the order of
things he describes, all being is allegedly governed by similitude and
consonance, but as we will see, balance and order do not always prevail.
Celestial influence is only the most obvious vantage from which to spot
the creative conjugations of diverse matters, embracing bodies within

a cosmic commonality, showing up the degree to which beings small

and large—embryonic and astronomic—are entangled. Humans infect
the universe at large too.
Ideas about the interaction of the human conceptus and the cosmos
go back at least to Hippocrates and were widely adopted in the Middle
Ages.191 In general, the human animal was thought to have a special
affinity with the heavenly spheres, depending on energy and informa-
tion exchanges with the seven planets and twelve signs of the zodiac.
Macrobius, for instance, taught that the human shares with the stars an
excellence called animus or an “ennobling soul.”192 This has implications
for how seminal creatures are envisaged and must be seen to become en-
nobled. In the evocative language of De Spermate, the human proceeds to
the universe: “wherof the soule of man, as in his reason goeth furth to the
universite.” At conception and throughout pregnancy, the planets rule
over specific months in the gestational cycle, exerting benign and malign
influences. The embryo contracts planetary and zodiacal influence to
itself, undertaking “to transferre the propirtes of planetis and signs.”193
The developing creature is expressly a nexus where manifold elements
are connected in the universal assemblage, “ligat, bounden, and joined
in planetis and signes, nexed to the iiij elementis.”194 Planets relate their
qualities and powers virtually (virtualiter).195 The weight of such analyses
falls on what lies between bodies in their mutual complicities and how
they are laced together for good or ill in the womb and the world at
large. Physicians consulted astrological charts to diagnose their patients.
A manuscript illustration for use in phlebotomy shows a “bloodletting
man” whose human body is connected by a set of emanating lines to
distant celestial bodies. Each bloodletting site of the diseased man is
a radiating and receptive point on the body, making the individual a
sort of hub of the heavens, producing an image of a fully environed
creature. The image has none of the symmetry of Leonardo’s Vitruvian
Man (which the illustration is likely to conjure up for moderns) and,
in any case, is not meant to address the ideal physique or coordinates
of the healthy human body but rather to evince a somatic and stellar
network. Human physiology is constitutively local and translocal in
these depictions of the man, multiplied by the number of diseases and
distributed across the assembled universe. Biological and astrological
bodies belong to a larger totality, which is another way of saying that

they are not totally themselves. They are virtually elsewhere (celestial)
even while inhabiting someplace (terrestrial) (see Plate 2).
Cosmology casts a wide net, and more must be said about the con-
text in which beings—small and large again—are brought into contact
with one another in terms that we will recognize as embryological and
epigenetic. On one hand, everything seems to be in its proper place, pro-
portionate, harmonious, and hierarchical. There is no shortage of apolo-
gists (past and present) for the dominant but now discarded image of the
universe that has origins in the ancient description of a tidily structured
system of mainly concentric spheres. A fourteenth-century English poet
offers a neat summation: in the seventh book of his Confessio Amantis,
Gower explains that the four elements, the complexions, the seven
planets, the fixed stars all move around a stationary center. The human
occupies pride of place in the constellation. Macrobius’s Commentary
on the Dream of Scipio was one influential source of Gower’s idea: as the
former teaches, the soul rules the body just as God rules the universe,
which is why “philosophers called the universe a huge man and man
a miniature universe.”196 As Gower says, “a man in special / The lasse
world is properly.” He is a “litel world” around whom everything pivots.197
The universe is also sometimes conceived as fully optimized. Boethius’s
famous hymn to a divine “love which rules the earth and the seas, and
commands the heavens,” set a precedent.198 A passage in Bartholomaeus
seems equally emphatic, referring to a world made “in a certein acorde
and proporcioun of armeny [harmony],” with the heavens rotating
around the earth, producing “melody,” all of which is mirrored in the
harmony of the internal organs and limbs of the human body.199 In this
context, the microcosm and macrocosm seem well attuned.
Granted, ancient cosmology often aspires to a recognizable holism,
economy, and autarchy, but equilibrium was an optimistic ideal asserted
against so much that was known to exist (and exist unknown) in the
same universe, and against a profound sense of the humiliating small-
ness of the “litel world.” The world (mundus) is so called because “it is
in eternal motion (motus), as are the sky, the sun, the moon, the air,
and the sea. Thus no rest is allowed to its elements.”200 In the ordinary
course of nature, as everyone knew, bodies sicken and die, and the
universe as a whole seems to be like an animal embryo that is subject
to such motions. Division and disorder wrack the earth. Everything is

theoretically necessary but seems contingent in observable time scales.

Gower diagnoses the problem as a postlapsarian one of human becom-
ing. He begins with the material makeup of the human who exists in a
state of disequilibrium, recurring to contemporary understandings of
the generation of an individual constitution:

It may ferst proeve upon a man;

The which, for his complexioun
Is mad upon divisioun
Of cold, of hot, of moist, of drye,
He mot [must] be verray kynde [nature] dye:
For the contraire of his astat [estate]
Stant evermore in such debat [conflict],
Til that o part be overcome,
Ther may no final pes be nome [had].
Bot other wise, if a man were
Mad al togedre of o matiere
Withouten interrupcioun,
Ther scholde no corrupcioun
Engendre upon that unite:
Bot for ther is diversite
Withinne himself, he may noght laste,
That he ne deieth ate laste.

The greater world is composed of a concomitant “diversite” and several

maladaptive elements. In Gower’s understanding, human disorder is
the occasion of major upheavals in the totality of things: “And whan
this litel world mistorneth / The grete world al overtorneth.”201 Cosmic
events and environmental changes provide some proof:

For as the man hath passioun

Of seknesse, in comparisoun
So soffren othre creatures.
Lo, ferst the hevenly figures,
The Sonne and Mone eclipsen bothe,
And ben with mannes senne [sin] wrothe;
The purest Eir for Senne alofte

Hath ben and is corrupt fulofte,

Right now the hyhe wyndes blowe,
And anon after thei ben lowe,
Now clowdy and now clier it is:
So may it proeven wel be this,
A mannes Senne is forto hate,
Which makth the welkne [sky] to debate.
And forto se the proprete
Of every thyng in his degree,
Benethe forth among ous hiere
Al stant aliche [alike] in this matiere:
The See now ebbeth, now it floweth,
The lond now welketh [becomes barren],
now it groweth,
Now be the Trees with leves grene,
Now thei be bare and nothing sene,
Now be the lusti somer floures,
Now be the stormy wynter shoures,
Now be the daies, now the nyhtes,
So stant ther nothing al upryhtes,
Now it is lyht, now it is derk;
And thus stant al the worldes werk
After the disposicioun
Of man and his condicioun.202

The microcosm and macrocosm are affiliated in such a way as to sug-

gest the vision of the universe is not as anthropocentric as it appears,
even if the ecological crisis is anthropogenic. First, the human is indeed
a lesser world, in qualitative and not just quantitative terms, a humili-
ating ruin; second, there is no steady state but a permanent dynamic
resonance between parts; third, the largeness of the cosmic view per-
mits thought to move beyond human scales and toward a totality that
is damaged. To this extent, Gower’s cosmology is what we must call
ecocentric and epigenetic, where creatures of all kinds are deeply en-
meshed. Moreover, there is no neutral background or foreground for
individuals in this universe—all the elements are equally “there”—key
to what Timothy Morton calls ecological thought.203 Of course, ecologists

are unlikely to attribute the corruption of the oceans and atmosphere

to original sin anymore, but—as we enter the Anthropocene Epoch
in the full recognition that humans have irreparably transformed the
earth’s ecosystems—the idea of a maladaptive collective “condicioun”
is an improvement on the aforementioned theoretical abstractions and
idealizations. Anthropogenic change affords a much-needed view of
the total catastrophe. And it is a medieval view.
Gower’s thought is consequently ecological, not despite the hier-
archical and holistic cosmos, but owing to the strength of the contin-
gent bonds between upper and lower elements. Gower highlights the
ligatures, joints, and connective tissues of the organized whole, as does
Macrobius when he says that people and planetary bodies share in ani-
mus. No micro or macro view has a monopoly over the whole complex
system of interrelations, then. We can think of this intersection of points
in terms analogous to Latour’s social topography: “The macro is neither
‘above’ nor ‘below’ the interactions, but added to them as another of
their connections, feeding them and feeding off of them. There is no
other known way to achieve changes in relative scale.”204 To see the way
things work, he advocates tracking all the vehicles that enable travel
from site to site in any large social formation, noticing how particular
and general concepts are all points on the itinerary. He follows others
in arguing for a “flattened” ontology—perhaps analogous to a Mercator
projection map, depicting the spherical earth on a planar surface, render-
ing all coordinates visible at once, or for that matter, akin to a medieval
astrolabe that performs a similar “horizontalizing” gesture through
stereographic projection. The point is to reveal how vertical structures
distribute weight in space and time and how, to borrow a phrase from
proponents of systems theory, the faraway is nearby.205 Gower’s micro-
cosm makes amply clear to us now the various lateral moves involved
in positioning and sustaining the human even before he says anything
about temporal becoming. Laying out evidence to expose all the sites of
connection, there appears a set of mutual correspondences that describe
a transhuman “condicioun.” It is a cosmos of cross-species conviviality—
if also a darker image of contamination and corruption—where be-
ings are interdependent. It is nevertheless an image of a latter-day,
postlapsarian world. Roughly the same kind of vision draws Latour to
sixteenth-century cosmology: “Of course, what is entirely lost today is

the notion of a harmony between the micro- and macrocosm. Yet, that
there is, and that there should be, a connection between the fates of these
two spheres seems obvious to all. Even the strange Renaissance notion of
sympathy and antipathy between entities has taken an entirely new flavor
now that animals, plants, soils, and chemicals are indeed acknowledged
to have their friends and their enemies, their assemblies and their web-
sites, their blogs and their demonstrators.” The past is prologue again:
“Four centuries later, micro- and macrocosm are now literally and not
simply symbolically connected, and the result is a kakosmos, that is, in
polite Greek, a horrible and disgusting mess! And yet a kakosmos is a
cosmos nonetheless.”206 Today the project is to search “for universality
without believing universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled
or discovered.”207 But neither did Gower subscribe to a naive notion of
static accord. There is little evidence of “common profit” but much in
common. All one must do is reassemble the picture of the universe to
see just how fraught things had become. If the task of philosophy today
is to compose commonalities without a pregiven harmony, then Gower,
among many others, should seem prescient. Medievals are engaged in
finding common ground within a vagrant cosmos.
Gower’s sense of commonality is reached by yet another route by
turning to cosmogony, detailing the original creation of order out of
primeval chaos in the seventh book of the Confessio Amantis, presenting
another means for recovering an ecological consciousness. Here, instead
of dwelling on the interrelationships of what is post (postlapsarian, end-
of-time degeneracy), we look more explicitly to transitional moments of
the proto (germinal, embryonic, creative proto-universe), which induces
changes in scale again. He turns from a synchronic to a diachronic view
of the temporal composition of the universe, broadening what we already
know about the emergent complexity of all. It is essentially an embryo-
logical model that poses a challenge to a panoramic cosmology, for the
latter is not a sufficient description of the means adopted to reach the
larger ends. What cosmogenesis offers is a vantage on the spatiotemporal
operations according to which the world comes into being. Yet, to better
appreciate Gower’s contribution, it is worth considering antecedents in
a long tradition of speculation that imagined the universe to be—and


The notion that the universe is a huge living organism, a Welt als
Makranthropos having a life cycle paralleling that of a human (an-
thropos), is venerable. It can be traced back to Orphic mythology and
Empedocles’s and Lucretius’s analogies of the world to an animated
mortal being and was later to be accompanied by the Platonic doctrine of
the world soul (forming a living zoion).208 The idea is expressed nowhere
more clearly than when Bernardus Silvestris says, “Mundus quidem est
animal” (The universe is an animal).209 It implies more than simple unity
and isomorphism of parts. Medieval Platonists developed mythopoetic
histories for the cosmic organism, a great living being that developed
over time, starting as an amorphous fetal and infantile body that grows
by stages. Cosmogony constitutes a kind of zoogony, rebuffing easy
categorizations (organic, inorganic, mind, matter). Whereas cosmology
freezes time, cosmogony shows it unfolding or folding up into pleats,
forming the very fabric of time and space. While presupposing entelechy,
events may be messier than one had hoped. The cosmos grows out of
something it may never overcome. Moreover, the quasi-personification
of the universe may betray suspect hints of vitalism or animism, ideas
that are more than hinted at in some branches of natural science.
Such are some major implications of commonplace images of the
world as an egg, embryo, infant, or wayward child. These are images
of a universe ever under formation, nurturing relationships, cultivat-
ing connections, composing things spatiotemporally. The cosmic egg
was handed down from Greco-Roman antiquity (the so-called Orphic
egg) through Macrobius to Albertus Magnus, Peter Abelard, William
of Conches, and Hildegard of Bingen—eventually making its way down
to twentieth-century physics and theories of an expanding universe.210
Macrobius respectfully alludes to the emblem of the egg in Orphic ritual:
“in these rites the egg is so revered and worshiped that (by reason of
its rounded and almost spherical shape and as completely encased and
containing life) it is called the image of the universe, which by general
consent is held to be the first beginning of all things.”211 Plato’s Timaeus
and Ovid’s Metamorphoses gave the motif traction with their respective
interests in chaos, creation, and flux, although neither one employs the

figure of the cosmic egg. Ovid’s name was later etymologized “ovum
dividens” (he who distinguishes the egg), a superb honorific in light of
his actual and reputed interest in creation and change. The fourteenth-
century Ovide moralisé indicates that Ovid is responsible for cracking
the egg open to reveal the truth, and he is shown in accompanying
manuscript illustrations bathetically clutching an egg.212 The fifteenth-
century Ovide moralisé en prose so absorbed the notion that in its com-
mentary on the creation myth, Ovid is said to have drawn a comparison
between the initial stages of creation and “du monde par la forme dun
oef.” In William Caxton’s English, this becomes “The comparicion þat
Ovyde made by the lyknes of an egge.”213
What the egg meant in any given context varied and was carefully
specified, but the main strength of the image comes from a sense that
morphogenesis is fundamental and ineliminable. The spatial and seg-
mented structure of the egg often came to emblematize an incipient
composition of the universe. Albertus Magnus drew a basic analogy
based on the four elements and physical geography. The earthy yolk is
in the center of an egg. “Thus, just as on earth the land is in the middle
of the water, air, and fire, so the yellow is in the middle of the water in
an egg.”214 An anonymous ninth-century commentator on Boethius’s
Consolation of Philosophy produced what became a more common set of
comparisons: the outermost is heaven–body, below which is water–soul,
and innermost is earth–heart.215 Caxton follows the Ovide moralisé in
describing the proto-universe in similar terms: “The yolk signefyeth the
erth. The white signefyeth the see, that goþ rounded about & closeth
the earthe. And the pellete, þat is ordeyned aboue þe other tweyne afor-
sayd, signefyeth the heven. In this manner hath Ouyd manifested and
shewd the ordenaunce of the elements by an egge.”216 Caxton was also
responsible for bringing out the encyclopedic The Myrour of the Worlde,
a prose translation that contains an old description of the egg-shaped
world.217 Yet by far the most intriguing example is that of Hildegard of
Bingen’s world egg, a surging, pulsing, roiling mass of fire and wind
brought together to represent an ordered universe under the auspices
of divine providence. Her gloss on the illustration can seem to reduce a
fantastic vision to a spiritual allegory: the egg is the power and mystery
of God; the luminance of the form is the Son of God; the sandy earth
within represents humanity derived from clay and surrounded by the

power of God.218 Yet the fearful image of a world lashed by storms and
surrounded by fire has a force quite independent of the tranquil meaning
attributed to it here and elsewhere, no matter the exegetical purposes to
which it is bent. To start, qualms arise as soon as one compares the con-
stitution and effects of real bird’s eggs. In a work on practical medicine,
Hildegard herself observes, “Eggs (ova) of any kind are more cold than
hot. They are able to do great outrage. They are harmful to eat, since
they are sticky and slimy, and almost like poison.”219 Whatever claims
are made about the benign nature of creation and Creator, actual eggs
are noxious to human bodies and represent one trifling example of the
disequilibrium of the elements inside the world egg. But it is largely in
the esotericism of Hildegard’s cosmic vision itself that we can glimpse
something like an ecological imaginary in embryonic form. Who can
escape the implications of the mutability and fragility of the embryonic
medium? What about the quasi-personification of the universe implied
by a germinal makranthropos? Is there not a faint hint of vitalism in
the analogy? How much does the vision of a gelatinous mass of cosmic
material tend toward naturalism instead of supernaturalism? And to
what extent is the feminine origin of the egg a rival to the patriocentric
genealogy? The egg is the scandal of the transitional life-form, suspended
sexuation, pure immanence of becoming in space and time, and the utter
dependency of life on others. The vision takes us back to Orphic chaos
that will not be stilled, and thereby evokes an older, occult cosmology
(Hermetic rather than reliably Christian)220 (see Plate 3).
Nor is the world egg easily correlated to the human species. The
question of the human in all of this has a long antiquity, going back to
the satirical treatment of the Orphic egg in Aristophanes’s The Birds.
There a chorus of birds, with comical air of superiority, addresses an
audience of mere humans: “In the beginning . . . there was no Earth, no
Air, no Sky. It was in the boundless womb of Erebus that the first egg
was laid by black-winged Night.”221 Of course birds would imagine the
world hatching from an egg. They invent a self-serving cosmogony, a
natural alibi for the species superiority of winged creatures. An avian
analogy of this type seems less convenient for other species. The egg
is almost too minute and delicate an image, but perhaps it is in just
this respect that the egg has untold ecopoetic advantages, cryptically
signaling the possibility of something outside of the anthropic norm.

There is always the chance that the cosmic egg will evince a universal
condition of cross-species communication and complicity, incubating
a virtual being at large. Perhaps it is not just for the birds.
Something of the inconvenient but still constructive nature of the
zoogonic analogy is expressed in the cosmology of William of Conches,
who wrote that “the configuration of our world resembles that of an
egg,” with the earth at the center as a yolk.222 More interesting than the
oviform shape, which he mentions just in passing, is the conviviality
of elements that make up the whole, constituting a physical world that
derives from a precosmic mass. In William’s cosmogony, everything
originated in a plenum he calls “one large body,” a monadic unity al-
most without any differentiating features. There the four elements were
“not locally distinct, but mixed throughout the whole, so that none of
the particles was outside this body. It occupied the whole place now
occupied by all bodies. Because of the mixture of the particles this
large body has been called chaos by the philosophers, which can be
translated ‘confusion.’”223 The first creation, on William’s view, therefore
sowed a kind of confusion among elements that is exemplified in Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, whose authority he invokes. It is in the primordial ooze
that we come to understand that the system is beset by flux, and ever will
be. Eventually the elements were sorted and bound together in tentative
arrangements, everything made from the same “minimal components
that when joined together, constitute a single large object.”224 All things
derive from such basic building materials, multiplicities joined by a
principle he calls syzygy, “the conjunction, through a mean, of bodies
that differ in qualities.”225 That the syzygic conjunction depends on the
intermediation of differing elements means that wholeness is grounded
in difference. The result is called the “magnificent fabric of the world,” a
machina mundi,226 but nothing so mechanistic or technical as the term
may suggest to moderns, for whom it can seem a disenchanted inorganic
metaphor to rival the organicism of anima mundi. The twelfth-century
humanists—including William, who wrote commentaries on Plato’s
Timaeus—had in mind something superorganic possessing a world
soul that imparts motion to things. William teaches that new species
may even arise in this world. It may be useful to approach the machina
mundi—a concept derived from Lucretius but adopted by medieval
cosmologists—from the perspective of Deleuze and Guattari’s “machinic

assemblage”: such an assemblage is made up of molecular (micro) and

molar (macro) intensities.227 All such assemblages are variable and
multiplicitous, each made up of different quivering “intensities”—to use
William’s word indeed—of syzygic elements.228 For some, as for William,
intensification and remission of qualities is the contingent means by
which all substances emerge. Just so, William teaches that organisms
evolve over time owing to different intensive forms arising out of the
co-constitution of elements—as we would say now, phylogenetically.
Compare the teaching of Macrobius, according to which no corporeal
body is full or complete in itself, “for it is constantly rejecting part of its
substance and seeking new additions.”229 It is basically an Empedoclean
vision of a world organism caught between the opposing forces of love
and strife, shot through by volatility, which is the condition of possibility
for the assembly of molecular and molar entities.
Finally, Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia produces a startling vi-
sion of ongoing cosmogenesis, deploying biological reproduction to de-
scribe the foundation of the world as makranthropic. His is not a cosmic
egg analogy as such, but he produces an equally suggestive cosmopoetic
allegory that tracks the germination of the living universe. Here mat-
ter develops through embryonic and infantile stages of becoming. For
Bernardus, the development is no mere metaphor of the “megacosmos,”
for as we have seen, the world in his Neoplatonic construal is a sentient
being, the anima mundi. He begins with Nature pleading to Noys, the
divine intellect, to produce order from the formless chaos, another
sort of monist whole that, until now, has remained a discordant, teem-
ing mass of something called Silva (or Hyle).230 Bernardus imagines a
complicated family genealogy for the physical world based around the
formation of hyle (materiality), showing how hylomorphism is first
generated. Noys is the firstborn of God; Nature is the offspring of Noys;
Silva is the nursling of Nature, whose work as foster mother will give
the material world form. Silva or Hyle is in turn

the inexhaustible womb of generation, the primary basis of formal

existence, the matter of all bodies, the foundation of substance.
Her capaciousness, confined to no boundaries or limitations,
extended itself from the beginning to such vast recesses and such
scope for growth as the totality of creatures would demand. And

since diverse and intricate qualities pervaded her, the matter and
foundation of their perpetuity, she could not but be thrown into
confusion, for she was assailed in such manifold ways by all natural
existence. The numerous and uninterrupted concourse of natures
dispelled stability and peaceful repose, and departing multitudes
only afforded space for more to enter. Hyle exists without rest
and could not remember a time when she might have been less
continually engaged in the formation of new creatures or the
reassimilation of those deceased. Vacillating, and ever liable to
change from one state of quality and form to another, no material
nature might hope to be assigned an identity proper to itself, and
so each went forth unnamed, putting on a borrowed appearance.231

Here there are the four elements and various other essences, qualities,
and quantities, all the various “seeds of things . . . warring with one
another in the chaotic mass” before being born.232 Silva is called the
chaos-mother of creation, “who contains the original natures of things
diffused through her vast womb,” but whose embryonic matter must be
brought to maturity and become newborn.233 For the seeds are without
form and soul themselves, recollecting the description of chaos at the
beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reading discordia semina rerum.234
The theory of hyle harks back to Aristotle, who coined the Greek term
ὕλη to designate matter (hyle) relative to form (morphe), the basis for
his understanding of sexual reproduction, as we have seen, and consti-
tutive of being at large. Bernardus shifts the emphasis to a primordial
plasma that is formless, radicalizing hyle in a way that resonates with
medieval and modern physics, as we will see later. This is not to say
that hyle endures for long without order. The semina rerum crave some
future life and are on their way to becoming “the infant universe.”235 The
implications of this epigenetic drama are clear, for, as Dronke explains,
“all is open and uncertain: Silva can terrify God by her disfigured looks,
Natura is not sure how Noys will react, the infant World does not know
his fate. It is a scene full of risks, full of surprises, where anything may
go awry.”236 Noys will “instil amity in the universe and regularity in
the elements.”237 And so she does, making peace between the elements
and generating species. She then fabricates a “cosmic soul,” Endelechia,
infusing the earth with a vital force and living continuity, each species

according to its kind.238 The infantia mundi is born. The next book
describes the “microcosmos,” the creation of the human likewise made
out of pregiven elements, shaped and endowed with sense and reason.
Yet both the micro and macro versions of hylomorphism fall short
of the mark. Primordial matter never seems to be entirely under the
dominion of Noys, and so it amounts to what Dronke has called an
“enfant sauvage,” a wayward child.239 Nature had originally asked Noys
to meliorate all things, “so far as their materiality will allow.”240 The
qualification is telling. She brings about amity, but not without some
residual intractability left in matter; matter is a matrix that retains its
fertility, refusing to be contained by form. At points this irrepressible
fecundity is moralized as a hostile thing. Matter from the beginning is
said to be disorderly, “suspended between good and evil, but because her
evil tendency preponderates, she is more readily inclined to acquiesce in
its impulses.”241 Now that the universe has become an animate nursling,
filled with signs of life and ordered by divine intellect, all things are
supposed to grow into a proper relationship. Things remain unstable,
however, despite the promising Neoplatonism. The “flux of Silva often
occurs, under the pressure of necessity, in a chaotic and violent way,”
though all is supposedly kept in check by the world soul.242 And things
are passing in and out of being in the sublunary realm. “So mankind,
inhabiting this unquiet region, the very image of the ancient chaos, must
needs be subject to the force of its upheavals. For the necessity which
arises from the fluctuating state of Silva, and which has been rigorously
purged from the heavens and the stars, remains fully active in the lower
regions.”243 The cosmographia is designed with an unknown quantity of
insurgent matter. Accordingly, the microcosmic is ever more fraught by
a struggle against turbid chaos. Even Physis foresees that animate bodies
will sicken and die. She falls into a reverie and imagines how they waver
“under the shifting influence of mutability; thence arise the afflictions
of disease, first troubling the spirit, causing its bodily dwelling to totter,
and finally casting it forth from its home altogether.”244 Such are signs
of chaos ever arising, threatening order, drawing creation back into the
original embryonic phase. Physis becomes guarded in the knowledge
that “the rough necessity of ever-flowing Silva lurked close beneath the
surface. The fluctuating mass harboured an evil tendency to injure or
destroy the glory of the divine handiwork. Physis kept watch, that she

might avert, if possible, or at least contain any treachery of this sort.” But
there is only so much she can do to keep chaos at bay, and she “cursed
the unbridled lawlessness of her material.”245 Yet she presses on to fashion
a human creature that stands erect above all other animals, shoring up
humankind against chaos. Just as Noys had given the universe a world
soul, so the human is endowed with an “animating spark” to make a
sentient creature.246 And as a bulwark against death, the human will be
made to procreate again and again. So the ordered universe returns full
circle by the end of the text, in an endless cycle of death and birth, to
perpeptual morphogenesis. “The nature of the universe outlives itself,
for it flows back into itself, and so survives and is nourished by its very
flowing away. For whatever is lost only merges again with the sum of
things, and that it may die perpetually, never dies wholly.”247 It is not
that chaos has been eliminated so much as channeled, exploited as one
possible tactic among others. A self-reproducing disorder becomes
redefined as the autotelic order of things in the machina mundi. The
virtue of matter lies in possessing an inextinguishable fecundity, ever
yielding new forms of disequilibrium. That is, new life.


The larger point of these examples has been to paint a total picture of
the universe that is never a finished totality but is rather composed of
fluctuating intensities and heterogeneous extensities. It is a cosmos
full of errancy and eventful change, where mortal beings are subject to
growth and decay, involved in some larger life cycle. Gower picks up
the threads of the ancient idea of metamorphosis, and so I will return
to a final consideration of radical change in Confessio Amantis, partly
because the text becomes a vehicle by which one important concept has
become diffused in the modern age. Gower’s concern with morphogen-
esis proves to be our own.
In Gower’s cosmogony, everything was conceived in an original

For yit withouten eny forme

Was that matiere universal,
Which hihte [called] Ylem in special.

Of Ylem, as I am enformed,
These elementz ben mad and formed,
Of Ylem elementz they hote [named]
After the Scole of Aristote,
Of whiche if more I schal reherce,
Foure elementz ther ben diverse.248

As the poet explains, the earliest development of the universe assumes

the condition of an amorphous space and formless matter without any
Ptolemaic articulation. Breaking for a moment with a strictly Aristotelian
hylomorphism according to which even prime matter does not exist
apart from form (i.e., relative to form), Gower posits a matter that
antecedes and exceeds formal causation. Only after positing ylem will
he rejoin the “Scole of Aristote” to elaborate on the four elements and
cardinal humors, which I think is a significant sequence of thought. It
is tantamount to assuming something like a two-seed theory against
Aristotle’s single seed, before going on to take up what remains of the
latter’s theory. The form in which Gower sets out the idea of cosmic
birth also draws attention to the antithetical way in which precategorical
concepts function, for Gower has chosen his rhyme words carefully to
draw out as much sense as possible. The original prime matter is “uni-
versal” but is named ylem “in special,” as if to indicate that the concept
cannot avoid specification through nomination, giving the appearance
of species even as ylem really comes before the generation of all spe-
cies. Having given linguistic form to formless matter, Gower is in the
seemingly impossible situation of only being able to correlate what is
uncorrelated. It appears to be a pragmatic contradiction. Or is it? The
following couplet is equally quixotic and draws attention to something
rising up from the poetry, making a new presence felt within the forms
Gower adopts. “Of ylem, I am enformed . . .”: he is at once informed by
his studies and formed from the same material substrate he is studying.
As others have noted, the next line recapitulates the notion that ele-
ments are “formed” in a way analogous to how the poet is informed,
reforms his matter, and forms audiences in the pedagogical project that
is the Confessio Amantis.249 All of this is surely meant to suggest that
poetic matter, like the primordial matter of which he is speaking, is as
polysemous as it is pluripotent. As Kellie Robertson points out in her

discussion of the intentional overlap of registers in such cases, “what

may appear to modern eyes as ‘academic’ natural philosophical debates
about how to represent the world—what is the relation of matter to
form? is matter prior to or simultaneous with form?—helped to pro-
duce the culturally specific relationships that existed between poets and
their literary subject matter and, subsequently, between readers and the
textual matter they encountered.” Turning to Gower’s playful verse, she
notes, “Late medieval poets regularly imagined themselves as creators
of a quasi-material poetic world and therefore found themselves using
metaphors drawn from the same storehouse.”250 I would only add that
the metaphors are not just metaphors, because they are some of the
very forms matters really do take, and not just by the light of old poetry.
That storehouse is one on which moderns continue to draw, no mat-
ter whether or how far they have advanced beyond medieval debates
over form and matter, micro- and macrocosms, or epigenetic change.
Gower’s ylem in particular is a concept with a long history and an odd
and unexpected future career, for it turns out that mid-century physi-
cists George Gamow and Ralph Alpher would poach that term from a
dictionary entry that cites the word as obsolete. Gower’s formulation
directly appealed to the men who, around 1948, appropriated the term
to describe the volatile nucleogenesis immediately following the big
bang. Having found a reference to the term in Webster’s Dictionary,
Alpher reflected on the happy choice: “it seems highly desirable that a
word of so appropriate a meaning should be resurrected.” To celebrate
his discovery (and, in one respect at least, rediscovery), he purchased
a bottle of Cointreau, relabeling it “YLEM.”251 Now on display at the
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the bottle of spirits would
become a token of the original chemistry of the proto-universe, when,
during an initial hot gaseous phase, a jumble of protons, neutrons, and
electrons synthesized to create the first elements. Cosmology had come
full circle: Alphar and Gamow were advancing “ylem” to explain what
the earlier twentieth-century physicist Georges Lemaître had called the
“cosmic egg,” much as their medieval precursors had done, redeploying
old concepts (see Plate 4).
Given this accident of history hatched out of a coincidence so strange
that it may seem made up, I am led to wonder, is it not worth putting
the medieval sciences in dialogue with modern physics and philosophy
more generally? Might we ponder whether and to what extent, in this

brave new post-Copernican, post-Newtonian universe, the imagined

dimensions and dynamics of premodern explanatory models are still
material? It is a highly speculative move, but I wager that those models
of virtual, epigenetic change and chaos are still productive. After all, the
earliest cosmologies are obsolete only when seen from the point of view
of outmoded, classical mechanistic science, whose rationalisms have by
now been succeeded by rigorous irrationalism in quantum physics. Big
bang theory owes as much to esoteric creation myths and the cosmic egg
in particular as to anything evidence based.252 Nor should we congratu-
late ourselves on having finally overcome medieval geocentrism, when
heliocentrism was never entirely out of the question anyway; medieval
observers could admit that either hypothesis could just as well account
for visible phenomena.253 Ptolemaic and Copernican universes are both
fair descriptions of the deviating courses of planets—those heavenly
wanderers, in Greek. Distinguished cosmologists have since reiterated
the point.254 So, too, we observe that epigenetic understandings of fetal
life evolved into (rather than being replaced by) modern embryology
of the kind that informs medical science today. None of this is to deny
that medieval and modern sciences are not sometimes worlds apart,
but I suggest nonetheless that putatively premodern speculations can
have a future. My aim is not to find a complex model to fit our latest
understandings but to understand how intricate and exacting medieval
understandings could be. We can now show that where they diverge in
matters of fact they agree over matters of concern.255 As different as the
facts most certainly are, it is as though they sprung up from the same
prime matter just as diverse forms came from the same material matrix.
Without putting too fine a point on the analogy, I would insist that
medieval cosmology and embryology are exceptional archives. They
compose seemingly counterfactual, speculative hypotheses about the
ecological bases of existence. They describe a growing universe that is a
medium of connection and cohabitation and enlarge our sense of home.


Speaking of finding our place in the cosmos, and anticipating what is

to come when we move from living organisms to consider some trifling
made objects, I want to take up as a final example the medieval astro-
labe. The scientific instrument was supposedly invented ages earlier by

Ptolemy, and it has many uses as a sort of map that charts spatial and
temporal changes: it can determine geographical location in relation
to the fixed stars, calculate height or distance, tell the time or convert
the hours, predict an eclipse, or determine a horoscope, among other
things. Through planispheric projection, it can record on a flat disc,
of about a handbreadth, distant positions in curvilinear space. Such
devices may at first seem to add the insult of egocentrism to the injury
of geocentrism by making the whole world pivot on a lone individual,
standing as early examples of the way the natural world was captured
and controlled for human-centric purposes. It is a handy gadget that
reduces and formalizes large-scale matters, as if containing and disci-
plining time and space. But the apparent instrumentality of the thing
should not distract us from the cosmic intimacies triangulating devices
can achieve in practice. Calculating and coordinating are functions not
of human cognition alone but of the collective agency of diverse bodies.
An astrolabe is a translation machine that collects data from the machina
mundi and presents that information anew. It produces superficies on
level ground, resulting in flat descriptions of the hemispheric vault of
the heavens. Instrumentation is a means of horizontalizing. The device
becomes a charged site of information exchange, human exposure, and
bodily and psychic extension into the world at large, achieved by way of
a material matrix—all thanks to a meager metalwork frame, flat surfaces,
dials, pointers, and characters (see Plate 5).
What does the astrolabe have to do with the matter of the child? It
is worth recalling that Chaucer dedicated his Treatise on the Astrolabe
to his young son Lewis around 1391, offering the text as an operation
manual for a child. That text, like the instrument, is explicitly described
as a matrix for the boy. Chaucer starts out with claims about translation
and technique in the mother tongue and explains how the astrolabe is
made up of a “mother” (i.e., the body) with a “womb” (the hollowed
out space of the body) in which is found the “rete” (the net or web).256 It
turns out that one uses the technology to traverse great distance between
languages, cultures, and ages, if always returning to the central place of
origin (“diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome”).257
If this seems to allow travel to the very navel of the world, the umbili-
cus Romae (ancient hallowed ground in the middle of the city, whose
location was determined by the stars and whence all distances were

measured), then we can perhaps say that the astrolabe is not unlike a
little navel, a portable umbilicus mundi.258 Lewis’s astrolabe is specifi-
cally oriented for Northern Europe, keyed to the latitude of Oxford,
and from there the device could track vast distances and durations. The
mechanism also represents an extensive inheritance of Greek, Arabic,
and Latin science, and all that learning is rendered in the vernacular just
as the heavens are inscribed on the face of the instrument. Translation is
at once linguistic, geographical, epistemological, and cosmological and
produces a webbing effect that is matrixial, not phallocentric. Turning
the delicate dial, Lewis would be able to discover how the astrolabe
maps the macrocosm onto the micrological object—so that the child
practically held a part of the cosmos in his hand. But it is just as true
that, for a moment, the universe holds the child in place and practically
orients his star-struck body. As if to say he were lodged in the womb
of the physical world, revealing life’s continued morphogenesis and
dependency on maternal nature.259 I will eventually return to elaborate
on small-scale materiality in a discussion of child’s play but will end
here by emphasizing the way the thing makes visible a vital nexus and
extends, instrumentally and informatically, the viability of life. Thanks
to a seemingly nonbiological and impersonal relation to physical real-
ity, where terrestrial and celestial regions cross, the cosmos becomes
a practical way in which human and nonhuman agents coemerge and
create life, making the best of contingent arrangements, reproducing
themselves along with innumerable other things.
This page intentionally left blank
Childish Things

An early-fourteenth-century miniature knight on horseback, discovered

in the muddy foreshore of the River Thames in the 1980s, now sits on
display behind a glass case in the Museum of London (see Plate 6).1 It
is a hollow, three-dimensional man and mount cast in pewter (tin–lead
alloy), standing just over two inches tall. City smiths likely manufactured
such replicas for the children of a growing urban middle class, although
given the taste for chivalric imagery and miniaturization across the so-
cial spectrum, adults, too, may have coveted a portable figurine of this
type.2 The armor and rigging have suggested a date late in the reign of
Edward I (d. 1307), which incidentally coincides with the first recorded
instance of toy in English.3 But the thing may just as likely present a
nostalgic image of the Edwardian knight, and its provenance may be
closer to mid-century.4 Just as one would never date a matchbox replica
of a Ford Mustang by make and model, we must be cautious: Edwardian
cavalrymen were not unlike classic performance vehicles. Edward, “ham-
mer of the Scots,” was known for his ambitious military campaigns and
castle building. Probably adults who had a sentimental attachment to
the romantic imagery gave such toys to children as memorials to what
was then already an anachronistic idea of the man-at-arms.5 Lacking
headgear and a left arm, the horseman will always remain hard to place.
Yet despite impediments, the figurine is convivial and compelling in
its material facture, eloquent about everyday life and labor in medieval
London. Although elusive to history, the material support of the image
is not beyond perceptual grasp. It can be held and beheld. Materializing


the past, the object is an insistent presence even now, giving rise to
conjecture—as if compelling idle and enchanting thoughts others as-
sociate with a childlike or primitive fantasy—about the vitality of the
thing itself. Putting aside limitations of archaeology or documentary
history, the physical object exhibits an eventful historicity and essential
facticity. In this respect, the metal horseman is part of the very armature
of history. The thing is not dated or even datable because it arises as a
saturated phenomenon or what we can call a factum (“something done
or made”), as a matter of fact preceding and exceeding any moment
in which it appears. Such small yet nevertheless prodigious objects
pose knotty ontological problems for those who wish to think along
with and not just about cultural artifacts, speculating about the life of
hard-tempered things. The freestanding object inspires the following
questions: What possible uses could someone make of the thing? What
would the object make of one deploying it? How does the thing tend to
act, move, order, relate, or play?
It is in response to those questions that the following discussion will
proceed by going as far as possible into the forms, relations, and uses of
the object, if only to exhaust those contexts one by one, seeing whether
and to what extent the thing shows up as itself. Contextualization is not
enough, though I will provide plenty. I aim rather after the ontology of
the miniature plaything, seeking to account for the density and dynamic
substance of the matter at hand, hoping that such an encounter will
open up other critical paths. Today our well-honed critical instincts
promptly set up obstacles to any account of das Ding an sich, conscious
as we are of the discourses and historical differences that get between
subjects and objects. Epistemology tends to trump ontology, often on
the assumption that critique is otherwise impossible; the other side of
critique is thought to be a naive realism, naturalism, or fetishism. The
pewter knight is especially vulnerable to anachronistic projections deriv-
ing from sentimental modern attachments to what the past (especially
childhood) must have been like “back then.” And yet I will insist that
the object (objectus in the etymological sense of something thrown
down, standing against, placed between or before) already constitutes
an obstacle to pure fantasy, mystification, idolatry, or ideation; the object
is that to which humans are subject and out of which subjectivity is co-
constituted (after subjectus, thrown or brought under). The objective

thing is detectable as a prior stimulus to thought and action and exists

whether or not we think about it; nor can we do anything we desire with
an object if it is to remain that which we desire. In this respect, among
others, the object interrupts the calculus of critique by insisting on its
own substantive reality and critical interventions in our desiring lives.
While we know the artifact is remote in history, then, who denies that
it is not the same thing that has traveled the distance? Artifacts make
their presence felt now even in the generous scope they give scholars
to doubt and debate (for without a minimal recognition of perdurable
materiality, there would be no point agonizing over alterity, because
not much would be at stake in our critiques), and so in any honest as-
sessment, radical skepticism about what the thing is must be taken as
an avowal that it remains, lest we cut off the branch we are sitting on to
achieve such lofty views. One of the object’s lessons is that being-as-such
is neither trivial nor tautological, and I join others who currently wish
to return palpable matters of the past to the foreground of our critical
practice.6 So well schooled are we in the thought that facts are value-
laden and values are theory-laden that we may forget how the reverse
is true: values and theories are fact-laden. The mistake is in failing to
recall that knowledge is embodied, local, situated, absorbed in the de-
terminative specificity of actual things. The error is to think thinking
absorbs things without remainder. “Things are ends and not means
only.”7 That does not mean facticity is ever fully legible, just that it is
no argument against them to say things are remote. Distance is, rather,
evidence of the surplus existence of the matter, a fait accompli coming
before and in excess of all concepts.8 We can think of the miniature thing
as embodying a “tiny ontology,” the term Ian Bogost uses to gesture at
the simplicity and density of being.9 I am interested in pursuing the
inherent remoteness of miniature frivolities in any event and environ-
ment, on the assumption that even very small things are dense enough
to survive the transformations of history. Furthermore, I hazard to say
that history is temporalized in and through objects. For indeed, anyone
can see that a thing has undergone changes over time, but change is a
virtual condition of the thing making history. Change is possible thanks
to an object’s residual and emergent qualities. An object “deploys a his-
tory,”10 and humans locate themselves accordingly. In this context I will
refer to a “toy ontology” whose contours should gradually become clear.

The museum display reinforces the basic intuition about the minia-
turized thing, and it is worth pausing over the case to demonstrate what
deploying history can mean. The cultural critique of “the collection” is by
now familiar. Collections often seem to render once vibrant objects into
so many commodities, tributes, and memorials, transforming history
into property. For its part, the miniature knight is fixed on a pedestal
within an aseptic glass case, put safely beyond reach in the Museum of
London; not to be toyed with except with special permission, the object
has become like a relic in a crystal monstrance found in a medieval
cathedral. The simultaneous reification and sublimation of the physical
object seems to have been achieved through the institutionalization of
the thing. What is lost to history in the process? Something of the same
suspicion about how museums appropriate objects is registered by the
designedly “institutional” diorama housed in the Smithsonian American
Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. David
Beck’s MVSEVM is a small-scale replica of the grand public building
and magnificent collection of which it is a part (and for which it was
commissioned). One of the first impressions a viewer is liable to have is
that the artist has rendered the large museum complex into a compact
reliquary cabinet or Wunderkammer. Yet this specific doubling of the
museum produces an implicit critique of institutionality, where objects
that once had a place in the world are now aestheticized or anaesthe-
tized specimens (as the miniaturized natural history indicates). There
is a more particular resonance given that the building once housed the
U.S. Patent Office before it was remade into a museum and gallery that
effectively patents art objects. Beck’s replica wittily alludes to that his-
tory, suggesting not only that the museum quarantines and de-vivifies
material artifacts but that it also commodifies them. At the same time,
Beck’s piece shows that any work is not the sum total of the corporate
collection but a singular object among others. The piece stands out both
as an exquisite re-creation and as a recursive critique—for, at the least,
insofar as the object mounts a critique, it cannot be identified totally
with the museum collection. It is charged with “toy ontology.”
Partly what makes any miniature such a playful object has to do
with the way it orients the gaze around something so trifling and toy-
like. Just so, I will urge that the medieval miniature horseman possesses
agency and autonomy no matter the environment in which it is placed.

Having started life as a commodity in fourteenth-century London, one

inescapable modality of the old figurine is discovered in the fetishizing
gaze. That is one of the miniature’s basic fascinations and affordances in
relation to human activity, then as now, the manner in which it makes
itself conducive and becomes compelling.11 Museums cater to the human
desire to behold such small things as these: “Use value is transformed
into display value here.”12 But I am insisting that physical display is in the
gift of this becoming miniature as much as it is developed by or within
the museum collection. That is so, first of all, on account of how visible
things rise up to meet the eyes (unlike, say, the spoken word, hydrogen
atoms, or irrational numbers). “To see,” as Merleau-Ponty says, “is to
enter a universe of beings which display themselves.”13 Miniature toys
and trinkets are especially congenial visible phenomena, often made
on purpose to satisfy scopophilic desire as inexpensive replicas of real
things (as in those idiosyncratic cabinets of wonder, so in the galleries
of public museums).14 A museum respects and upholds the miniature in
the very curation of the object as a peculiarly uncanny, decadent thing.
Orienting the institutional apparatus and immense public resources
around these spectacles, collections of miniatures end up constructing
the site of their exhibition.15 Is it too much to say that such an exiguous
object is quietly engaged in museumification? At the same time, the
miniature threatens to disappear within the larger assemblage and so
arouses within us a typical worry that they are occulted or excluded.
But what if, as I will eventually argue, they always strain our vision and
resist comprehension? For if the miniature horseman seems withdrawn
into a sorry state of inanimate torpor in the glass case, captive as an in-
ert object of curatorial attention and public spectatorship, it is perhaps
because such objects are withdrawing all the time.16 Objects go on be-
ing themselves, whatever our projects, in the singular action of idling
or existing in themselves. No matter how used or abused, they are not
used up in the process.
I will begin with an incremental unfolding of the material history of
a childish thing, attempting to move increasingly toward real essential
differences on the assumption that “reality” may ultimately be indifferent
to analysis. The idea is that a sort of anamorphosis will allow sidelong
glimpses of the thing, or if not of the thing itself, then at least of its ef-
fective perturbations within the world. The tiny thing is to some extent

measured by the limitations it affords analysis. To start, I consider the

form of the matter, that is, what pertains to the idea of the knight and
the social construction of children’s culture in a case where a more or
less direct correlation between the toy knight and chivalric discourses
would make the plaything didactic, idealistic, ideological, interpellative.
Is the military figure not an ideological construct intended to mystify and
romanticize the man-of-war? Were children not formed and informed by
such stereotyping toys, just as the pewter object was molded into shape
in a stone matrix? On this account, the toy becomes an anecdote in the
history of the pervasiveness of power and discursive practices. Yet the
ease with which we can venture the critique should give us pause because
some of the substance remains untouched and cannot be cashed out in
theories of power and knowledge, and so I will proceed to dwell on the
materials and craft manufacture of the thing—or the matter of the form.
Here we can attempt what Latour models in “reassembling the social”
and start to see metals and metalwork as actors within vast networks
that go off in various directions at once. Not just discursive, the toy is
extended in space and time by means of actor-networks, extrapolated
across further domains than are controlled by human action. Can we
not see in the alloy object an example of material history mixed with
elements, mined from earth, molded into shape? Is the plaything not
evidence that children’s culture is a conjugation of diverse things always
on the move? Now the toylike knight in its material support comes into
closer proximity to craft labors than chivalric ones—inviting the further
thought that chivalry and craftwork are themselves closely related, given
that a knight’s mettle is always bound up with his metal (as Shakespeare
puns).17 A knight must be made of the right stuff. Our analysis could
come to rest here in Latourian recognition of non/human sociality, and
yet the argument about a thing’s relationality is only a sort of upgrade
to the previous one. Tracing the networks of associations brings us up
short of the thing in itself.
So I go on to contemplate what is at play in the thing as plaything,
exploring the way enchanting objects of this sort—evoking childhood
joie de vivre—become animated, motivated, mysteriously lively pres-
ences. An invitation to spontaneous play, the toy is particularly unpre-
dictable, mercurial, even mischievous. The perception is consonant with
common and irresistible dreams that animal and human figurines are

destined to come alive, enjoying adventures outside of human obser-

vation (from Plato’s Meno down to Pinocchio and Toy Story).18 We will
consider other made objects—dolls, puppets, automata, animal and hu-
man effigies, finally literary characters—that come to life in both child’s
play and fictional works. It is not just children who think so. Graham
Harman has entertained the thought that objects may exhibit a secret
life: “it might even be the case that, like the menacing toys prowling in
some depraved Geppetto’s workshop, objects truly flourish only in that
midnight reality that shields them from our view.”19 Indeed, this is a
common fantasy: toys represent an alternative order and even sometimes
an obscure threat. However that may be, I will suggest that miniature
playthings stand opposed to monumentality and instrumentality, effect-
ing a diminution and displacement of great matters of state or official
chronicle, extending Agamben’s insight that children, toying with his-
tory, become “humanity’s little scrap-dealers.”20 The toy wastes human
resources, sapping anthropocentric relations and understandings even
as they give themselves over to imaginative play that seems one of the
hallmarks of the human.21 Besides toy knights, there survive from the
same period miniature tableware, mechanical birds, and spinning tops,
and written records speak of rattles, puppets, and toy carts. Many of these
playthings are redundant, impractical, pointless matters. Miniaturization
of all kinds is especially diverting and associated with immature con-
duct, and we must carefully consider its aspects. Like broken tools in
Heidegger’s famous analysis, they are obstinate presences, refusing to
work.22 A plaything is in a fundamental sense broken or, as I will insist,
“analytic” in the root sense of breaking or loosening bonds. Like most
used playthings, the toy knight is the worse for wear. It bears the marks
of time and leisurely play, and given the damage, we can think about
the temporality of the thing, opening onto unknown futures. So if we
are going to say that the toy does not “work,” the thing may still “play.”
In the end, I bring the analysis of small-scale playthings to bear on
literary activities, wondering in particular about the analytic function of
toying with texts. It is worth recalling the origins of miniatures in very
early bookmaking, as the term comes from the Latin minium, referring
to the red lead used for painting initials, which at some point became
confused with minore, coming to denote small portraits and smallness as
such.23 We might think of the well-known illustrations in the Ellesmere

manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, where an unknown illustrator put

Chaucer and other pilgrims on horseback. These are diminutive visual
analogues of the verbal portraits found in the General Prologue, but the
illustrated figures are noticeably out of proportion with their equipment
and equine figures, Chaucer’s own upper body having been distorted for
one, seeming almost to meld into the horse, creating another horseman-
like figurine. Leaving the Ellesmere illustrations aside, my analysis will
run to how Chaucer “horses around” with scale in the seventh fragment
of the Tales, particularly with horses and riders in fact, suggesting that
fictional characters may display something like toy ontology. I will
explore Sir Thopas, the “incredible shrinking knight,”24 whose toylike
character is worth comparing to the pewter horseman, articulating the
poet’s sense that fiction is an enchanting, childish thing.


When is children’s recreation not education, an introduction to the

dominant social habitus or interpellation into the state apparatus? Is
child’s play ever innocent? As Walter Benjamin says with salutary cau-
tion, “a child is no Robinson Crusoe; children do not constitute a com-
munity cut off from everything else. They become the nation and the
class they come from. This means that their toys cannot bear witness
to any autonomous separate existence, but rather are a silent signify-
ing dialogue between them and their nation.”25 The medieval evidence
seems clear enough: many of the surviving playthings manufactured by
adults for children quietly sanction the most conventional values. The
London pewterers who made toy knights for boys also made miniature
tableware for girls (though they could equally have served boys who
wished to play, for example, at carving at the table in the manner of
Chaucer’s Squire).26 They fashioned objects that could hardly be more
normative or hegemonic. Ideologically saturated objects, toy soldiers
and household utensils are especially provocative. Like toy guns and
fashion dolls today, they stimulate us to think hard about their inherent
properties and errant or expected sociopolitical effects.
Certainly boys were encouraged to play with military toys and para-
military games in the medieval period. Medieval writers often speak
about the value such play and games possess as preparation for adult life,
and it is worth lingering over such generalizations because of the way

they so clearly instrumentalize play. The Regimine Principum of Giles

of Rome, translated into Middle English by John Trevisa in the 1380s or
1390s, articulates a theory of play for princes along these lines: recreation
conditions the bodies and minds of noble boys and helps produce the
proper bearing for court and the battlefield. Following Aristotle’s Poetics,
Giles writes that children “mot have in use manerliche honest pleyes
and liberal. . . . For it is iknowe how children scholde have himself in
pleyes, it is to wetyng [find out] how he schulde have himself in beryng;
and beryng here is icleped [called] mevyng of membres and of lymes
by the whiche mevyng disposicion of the soule may be know.”27 That
is to say, play is a way for boys to learn how to use and comport their
bodies: they are to adopt the correct physical style or habitude thereby,
embodying the disposition of the soul. The properly ruled body reveals
innermost qualities of character (“soule”), and inner and outer man be-
come isometric. It is a common enough notion, expressed, for example,
in Albertus Magnus and Aquinas, who describe the virtues that ought
to inhere in bodily movements.28 So play and games constitute a field of
activity where the chivalric identity is first fashioned: a masculinity that,
as several scholars have shown, is ideally self-contained, holistic, and
intact.29 Giles goes on to note that the development of the appropriate
“lore in beryng,” or carriage, distinguishes humans from animals, who
have no need of such cultivated ways of moving and disposing them-
selves. And of course, the rational comportment of the chivalric prince
further differentiates him from common folk and from women, who
learn different skills. What noble boys in particular should learn through
play and games is a kind of corporal understanding or lore: “lore that
scholde be in berynge,” as Giles says, “is that eche lyme be iordeyned
to his owne work; for man hureth [hears] not with his mouthe but with
his ere. . . . Also a man speketh not with feet nother with hondes nother
with sholdres.”30 On this account, child’s play within limits (being “hon-
est” and “moderat”) is efficient and formative, instilling virile strength,
self-control, coordination, and decorum. Boys, learning what each part
is ordained to undertake in the daily life of a nobleman, accordingly de-
velop the well-regulated body of a knight. For a knight is “well desposed
in his body whanne his body is suche as nedeth for a knyghtes office.”31
Such is the normative ideal according to which a knight’s identity and
body image develop, through play, into a somatic whole.
Childhood development was to start with the very young. In fact,

chivalric objects and activities were expected to inspire awe in boys, as

indicated in Geoffroi de Charny’s fourteenth-century guide to knight-
hood, where he argues that reverence is indicative of the natural-born
chevalier. Boys are knights in the making, Charny argues, “who, from
their own nature and instinct, as soon as they begin to reach the age
of understanding . . . like to hear and listen to men of prowess talk of
military deeds, and to see men-at-arms with their weapons and armor
and enjoy looking at fine mounts and chargers; and as they increase in
years, so they increase in prowess and in skill in the art of arms in peace
and in war; and as they reach adulthood, the desire in their hearts grows
ever greater to ride horses and to bear arms.”32 In fact, noble boys were
to be carefully maneuvered into such positions within the dominant
social habitus. For Giles of Rome, playing at ball and wrestling were
the recommended activities for the very young who would start down
this path, preparing them for more robust physical activity later.33 Then
at fourteen years of age, Giles says, boys are to be trained in “dedes of
armes and of chevelrie.”34 In England, they were taught horsemanship
and how to handle arms and armor, and by means of various other
activities (hunting, hawking, and archery), they honed their riding and
shooting skills further. And here we come to what military toys and
games might facilitate on the developmental route from “from childhood
to chivalry,” to borrow Nicholas Orme’s phrase. He is the historian who
had done most to teach us about how childhood play and playthings
tend to be expressive of the dominant values of the time, detailing in
several publications the material and documentary evidence. As he
shows, for example, preadolescent princes had small bows, toy swords,
and hobbyhorses: the five-year-old son of Edward I “owned a little castle
and siege engine to use against it,” and John of Gaunt’s sons were given
swords and small suits of armor.35 Richard II acquired two miniature
cannons when he was but ten years old, in 1377, the year of his succes-
sion.36 How children may have played at war with human figurines is
suggested by a marginal illustration of a game in the twelfth-century
Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Hohenbourg, where two young men
hold strings and manipulate opposing knights on a table.37 Elsewhere
we find images of young children jousting on stick horses.38 Imitative
role-play would no doubt have been common enough, as in the story
of William Marshall and King Stephen as children playing at knights,

“each holding a plantain and trying to knock off the head of the other’s.”
Orme draws out the implications: “These childhood interests lead to
adult ones, for William had a brilliant military career when he grew
up.”39 Such adult employments may not have had to wait long either,
as indicated with reference to one branch of the Plantagenets: “Edward
III commanded his first expedition against Scotland in 1327 at the age
of 14, his brother John of Eltham fought at the battle of Halidon Hill
in 1333 when he was 17, and Edward’s son the Black Prince was only 16
when he ‘won his spurs’ at Crecy in 1346.”40 Situating toys and games
within the dominant social habitus, Orme observes that boys played
paramilitary games to “grow up to play their part in what was, for most
men, a military society.”41
There are therefore good reasons to think toys are exemplary and
instrumental, leading boys down a path of increasing involvement in the
dominant culture. The point is demonstrated in the fifteenth-century
Scottish poem Ratis Raving, a unique early inventory of the things typi-
cally found or made by children. Speaking of the inventions of the early
years (ages three to seven), the poet observes with unusual interest,

Sa lang havis child wyl alwaye

With flouris for to Jap and playe;
With stikes, and with spalys small,
To byge up chalmer, spens and hall;
To mak a wicht hors of a wand;
Of brokin breid a schip saland;
A bunwed tyll a burly spere;
And of a seg a swerd of were;
A cumly lady of a clout;
And be rycht besy thar about
To dicht it fetesly with flouris,
And luf the pepane paramouris:
And be syk wantone wyrk weill
Thi dayly dawark is done ilk deill.42

Children have always desired

With flowers to jape and play;
With sticks and small chips

they build up chamber, larder, and hall;

To make a horse out of elm;
Of broken bread a ship to sail;
A ragwort stem into a spear;
And a sword out of sedge-grass;
A beautiful lady out of scrap cloth;
And be right busy thereabout
To adorn it with flowers,
And love the puppet paramour;
And by such wanton work
Their daily work is done always.

These makeshift playthings reflect children’s interests, which perhaps

reinforces the view that toys, in children’s hands, simulate activities
and objects associated with chivalric romance. Boys even produce a
predictably gendered doll out of nothing, forming not just any human
figurine but a “cumly lady” who is the object of love “paramouris.” But
how would an object (made of scraps or castoffs, on which more later)
carry out such mimetic and didactic functions? Must one willfully forget
about the material makeup of the object when so deployed?
To approach toys as functional and formulaic in this way is to privi-
lege the form of the matter, a point that can be elucidated by way of
Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism. Recalling the account of Aristotelian
embryogenesis described in the first part of the book, to say something
is hylomorphic is to say it is a compound substance where form has
causal primacy over matter, and that form and matter are in any case
clearly ranked one above the other. The same efficient dualism figures
prominently in natural philosophy and medical writings, where it takes
on a telling masculinist bias that also helps illuminate what is at stake in
the object. As Aristotle taught and others tended to assume, in animal
reproduction, the male seed (efficient cause) shapes passive female
matter (material cause). Man is the generative or formative principle,
woman the passive recipient. Even in abstract discussions of the topic,
sex differences are implicit: “Aristotel seiþ þat fourme haþ hitsilf as it
were a man, for he may enfourme many matieris, as a man may brynge
many wommen wiþ childe.”43 Such sentiments remind us that, as Judith
Butler points out, “materiality [is] the site at which a certain drama of

sexual difference plays itself out.”44 On this analysis, the toy comes into
focus as the aggressive hypermasculine figure it appears to be all along, a
small-scale replica of a knight on his warhorse. It would be an imposing
figure. It epitomizes the military man poised for battle. The scale and
substance of the thing are obviously specific to the miniature metallic
object, but they are geometrical and physical differences subtending
a generic masculinity. Such physical differences are only phenotypic
variations among individuals with the same genotype. Recalling how
chivalric identity is dependent on generic norms and forms of bodily
bearing, outward signs of “soul,” the pewter knight seems an entirely
coded and cultured object. More to the point, perhaps, this man is a
virile, reproductive creature who summons children’s culture into being.
Why not think of the object as so seminal?


Form is a conspicuous aspect of the horseman that affords specific ap-

plications, which in this case entails that such a toy could function as
a virtual training ground for boys, creating miniature theaters of war
where they play out aggressive scenarios. The freestanding object has
pliable legs and arms (including a sword arm that can bend into different
positions) and could be made to move in ways that simulate the pos-
tures of a military man, anticipating the capabilities of modern “action
figures.” But standing and moving around suggest something material
at work in the object besides mere form, and as soon as materiality is
factored into the nature of the thing, we have admitted another set of
possibilities. Matter and form, as medieval writers knew, are reciprocal
elements. Matter contributes something to the makeup of things, as in
Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus: matter has “a maner
actif myȝt” in itself, something that inclines it to many forms; and “ma-
tere is never iseye withoute fourme, noþir fourme may nat be seye but
[in] dede and ioyned [joined] to matiere.”45 In the present case, indeed,
the horseman only arises as a well-formed moveable thing relative to the
fitness of the substance that is formed. To take the point that all forms
are relational, situated, and environed is to inquire into the particular
and somewhat perverse material histories of the object. And they is-
sue a challenge to military masculinity. As a matter of fact, the toy’s

metallic body travels vectors that go around and beyond militarism and
potentially gets carried away.
Things are given substance in specific contexts that recall local oc-
cupations and materializations of labor. The first point to make, then,
is that the object’s scale and substance are anything but irrelevant to
the experience of the plaything, because such objects tend to forge
close bonds between the toy and craftwork. Lévi-Strauss remarks that
miniatures are “the ‘masterpiece’ of the journeyman.”46 Stewart echoes
the point when she speaks of the sentiments that often get attached to
scaled-down things: “We cannot separate the function of the miniature
from a nostalgia for preindustrial labor, a nostalgia for craft. . . . Whereas
industrial labor is marked by the prevalence of repetition over skill and
part over whole, the miniature object represents an antithetical mode
of production: production by hand, a production that is unique and
authentic.”47 Barthes waxes poetic about the virtues of crafted, wooden
toys so unlike modern ones made of plastic, “chemical in substance.”48
Benjamin indulges in some related sentimentality, relishing the way early
manufacturers of toys were not specialists: “You could find carvings
of animals at the woodworker’s shop, tin soldiers at the boilermaker’s,
gum-resin figurines at the confectioner’s, and wax dolls at the candle-
maker’s.”49 Early toys are thought of as rough-hewn out of the material
circumstances of everyday craftwork, whereas by comparison, modern
industrialization produces something repulsive.50 We need not share his
view that medieval toys are more authentic to take the point that artifacts
materialize the labor process and that this manifestation is more visible
in an age when collective industry was of great importance. It is the case
generally that medieval decorative arts tend to lay bare their material
and technological origins and that the smaller the matter, the more craft
know-how and technical prowess come to the fore.51 Miniaturization
especially is about demonstrating artistry, as in portable books of hours.52
Toys are relatively rudimentary examples, but even simple carvings or
makeshift devices expose their constructedness and collective origins.
Some small-scale pewter tableware was made using the same materials,
similar molds, and routine labor. Three twelfth-century tripod ewers
(thirty-five, thirty-six, and thirty-nine millimeters in height) kept in
small plastic boxes at the Museum of London are verisimilar down to
the finest details, including crosshatching and zoomorphic designs,

calling attention to the workmanship involved in their making.53 Clay

toys bespeak ceramics; cloth ones, textiles. Just so, the toy knight is
about craft as much as military adventure, but as a pewter product, it
has a very specific materiality (see Plate 7).
An alloy of tin and lead or copper, pewter belongs to a coalition
forces, elements, and economies, and it is important to notice the con-
nections.54 Metal is, after all, a real medium of connection. Speaking
of economics alone, fourteenth-century English pewter was associated
with rural and urban industries and mercantile interests at home and
abroad, exhibiting an extraordinary ability to move people and resources
around. It was one of the chief exports after wool. Like alabaster and
Purbeck marble (whose raw materials, gypsum and limestone, were
likewise close at hand owing to accidents of geography), tin was taken
to be one of the few patently English commodities.55
Given the commercial stakes involved, London pewterers were suf-
ficiently concerned about the quality and reputation of their wares to
regulate manufacturing and trade. They organized themselves into a
self-identified company of laborers. The first ordinance of the London
pewterers is recorded in 1348 (in Anglo-Norman and Latin in the city’s
Letter Books and in English in the company’s records), announcing that
the “goode folke, makers of peauter vessel,” intend to publish the “state
and pointes of her crafte” and, “uppon the defawtes [as to offenses], for
the comun profite, by gode discrecion to ordeine redresse & amende [to
redress and amendment thereof].” The first point concerns protecting
credentials and craft knowledge. Members will use the proper alloys
following established customs, and enforcement of the quality of pew-
ter is to be carried out by three or four “moste trew & cunnyng of the
craft,” expert assayers who will discipline anyone found “rebel.” Next
come the specifications. Fine pewter is distinguished from so-called
lay pewter, an inferior and inexpensive mixture containing more lead.
The former is made with a “mesure of brasse to the tyn as moche as
it wol receive of his nature,” whereas the latter is made with a tin–lead
alloy “to a resonable mesure” (here identified as twenty-six pounds of
lead to every one hundredweight of tin). Various penalties follow for
those who are unqualified, negligent, or dishonest: “at the first defaute
he shal lese [forfeit] the mater so wroghte. At the secund defaute he shal
lese the mater and be punishid by the discrecion of the maire [mayor]

and alderman. At the third tyme if he be taken trespassinge he shal be

foringed of the crafte for evermore [foreswear the trade evermore].”56
Quality control is a chief concern. Just as goldsmiths and silversmiths
protected the legal tender, so pewterers established a sort of common
currency.57 Equally, they desired to protect trade secrets and promul-
gate an image of solidarity and good standing in the larger community.
They envisage themselves as keepers of “comun profite,” tolerating no
rebellious behavior.
The drive toward mastery and collective identity is clear enough,
but in fact the pewterers are actors within networks more than masters
of them. It has been shown that guilds are more diffuse and dependent
on other people than ordinarily appears from the official records.58 A
more massive “illusion of economic structure” may be detected once
we consider the nonhuman actors (animate and inanimate, human and
nonhuman, real or imagined) belonging to networks that distribute
action across fields that are in the control of no single monopolistic
agency. All are vital to the system and the resulting polity (whether guild
or commonwealth), and seeing them will provide a fuller picture of the
way people and things (even apparent trifles) live and work together. In
this case the metalworkers do not so much organize matter as organize
around it, and their products cannot help but become a testimony to
mutual dependencies. The reciprocity of metal and metalworker should
be obvious enough: raw materials always determine the basic conditions
of possibility for manufacturers and merchandisers. Of medieval metal-
working it has been said before, “skill and craft identity were conceived
primarily in terms of knowledge of the characteristics and performance
of the different metals used.”59 Yet to take the idea seriously is to observe
that these are not just limited to the concerns of calculating, crafty hu-
mans but also spring from the characteristics of a quasi-animate metallic
substance that preexists them. It may be difficult to accept, given that
metal is a material that, as Bennett has observed, is closely associated
with “passivity and dead thingness” (e.g., adamantine chains and iron
cages).60 But such apparently hard stuff exhibits a quivering, vibrant
materiality in the medieval context.
As Hugh of St. Victor wrote in the twelfth century, “when a coiner
imprints a figure upon metal, the metal, which itself is one thing, begins
to represent a different thing, not just on the outside, but from its own

power and its natural aptitude to do so.”61 What is this power and natural
aptitude? Metals have a knack for bonding, blending, and spreading,
and medieval theory and practice acknowledge the fact. Smiths were
in the business of producing moveable goods, not just properties to
be possessed and consumed but also itinerant and alienable things.
Flowing out of London, fine pewter makes the city more of a conduit
than a center—a threshold between Cornwall and the Continent. English
pewter is not a solid state, and nor is it the property of England. The
metal is mobile, mutable, and, despite appearances (because metals give
every indication of fixity), fluid. Indeed, a basic advantage of metals over
other raw materials is that they can be founded (from Latin fundere,
“melt, pour”), and, as the medieval metallurgists and Chaucer’s Canon’s
Yeoman’s Tale indicate, they are therefore “fusible.”62 Unlike horn, wood,
or stone, metals can be reduced to a molten liquid and assembled into
nearly infinite shapes. The third and longest book of De diversis artibus
(circa 1200), by the pseudonymous Theophilus, is devoted to metalwork,
and a quick glance is instructive for what it reveals about the particular
value of fusibility.63 Metals can be cast, soldered, worked on a lathe, and,
depending on their relative ductility and malleability, beaten, stretched,
stamped, twisted, and, in the end, melted down again. Pewterers found
themselves beholden to the properties of tin, which exhibited its own
special advantages. Tin was abundant and close by; it has a low melting
point, requiring fewer secondary resources (i.e., wood fuel) than other
metals; and because it resists corrosion, it protects other materials and
withstands long exposure outside. Inexpensive and extremely versatile,
tin is naturally inclined to bond and blend with many other materials
(through soldering and tinning) and to insinuate itself into a range of
human activities (through tinfoil decorations in books and paintings,
the mass production of tin ware, and alchemy). Actively lending itself
to relations, the metal may seem highly impressionable. And yet such
cheap material was also a volatile or mercurial actor, in no way reduc-
ible to human relations. Pewter is ambiguous by nature because the
exact composition is almost impossible to determine.64 It presents an
opportunity for counterfeiting or, at least, for exploiting a resemblance
to luxury goods (silverware or ornamental silver leaf). One common
complaint against alchemy was that tin and lead could be made to imitate
silver easily, and of course, all metals can be debased. Some craftsmen

surreptitiously adulterated their alloys, as already implied in the sanc-

tions the pewterers found it necessary to establish.65 Pewterers sought
to maintain control, denouncing “rebels” who threaten the “commu-
nity” and “comun profite.” But in their ranks was obvious dissension.66
Metals are equally discordant members of the fellowship, and they will
sometimes revolt. Even a devious or shoddy pewterer would have to
be careful in case his work eventually betrayed him by melting, given
that softer and cheaper alloys would lose their form near the hearth.
A relatively mundane site of controversy over purity and pollution,
then, tin–lead alloys occasioned much anxiety and activity in the period
that gave us the pewter miniatures. In this case, agency needs to be seen
as something that flows through the materials. If pewterers do not fully
articulate the relations in their ordinances, those relations are realized
in all of their works. For it depended on the fact that metals, as agents
within networks, possess tolerances, affordances, or serviceability.67
Metalworkers are involved in a material medium, even if that means
attempting to purge impurities. They are alloyed to nonhuman actors.


Looking still deeper into the issue from the perspective of contemporary
sciences, we can find out more about the liveliness of metals before re-
turning to draw out the implications for the tiny pewter man and mount.
Addressing the formation and composition of the six or seven known
types (gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and sometimes mercury),
medieval metallurgy and alchemy both regarded an evolving, volatile,
vibrant materiality.68 Metals are in continual flux at different time scales,
having first mineralized organically in the earth before being taken up
(mined, smelted, refined) and put to diverse uses (e.g., mixed, tempered,
and polished to make ware; beaten and bent to make armor; concocted
and distilled into pharmaceuticals; molded into pilgrim badges; stamped,
weighted, and filed into coins). Metabolizing, coagulating, transforming,
metals are seen as emerging in time and spatial environments where
they contribute something palpable. Weirder still, metal was supposed
to grow like an animal organism.
Numerous late medieval treatises and commentaries describe the
generation of metals out of simple elements in a primordial matrix. Metal

ores are engendered out of cold and moist vapors acting on the earth
(atmospheric factors first described in the meteorology of Aristotle)
and a combination of sulfur and mercury within the earth (primordial
substances as described by Arabic writers known to the Latin West).
Precious metals were thought to be more perfect or pure combinations
of those primal materials, whereas base metals like tin were impure and
immature. Among other factors, stellar influence affects the genesis of
stones and metals, which is why the different subspecies are referred to
by names of the seven planets (e.g., tin is Jupiter). Alchemical texts teach
that natural forms are contingent on environmental conditions and that
deviant forms are more common than anything. As John Gower puts
the matter in his account of alchemical processes in the fourth book
of the Confessio Amantis, “For as the philosophre tolde / Of gold and
selver, thei ben holde / Tuo principal extremites, / To whiche alle othre
be degres / Of the metalls ben acordant.”69 In other words, all other
metals are measured by their resemblance to the two principal types of
matter, in what amounts to a version of a two-seed embryology. Albertus
Magnus likewise maintains that metals are “closely related.”70 During
visits to mines, he saw with his own eyes a single vein of metal ore that
was gold in one place and silver in the other, confirming the existence
of a continuum. Either way, metal emerges as an example of what De
Landa calls “matter-energy” undergoing constant “phase transitions.”71
Both genetic and epigenetic factors are at work in the production
of metals too. Albertus occasionally cites the gnomic saying of Hermes
Trismegistus, who declared that Earth is a gravid mother carrying metal
in her belly.72 Metals are then understood as being differentiated ac-
cording to the earth’s processes of conception, gestation, nutrition, and
parturition: “Just as a boy in the body of his mother, contracts infirmity
from a diseased womb by reason of the accident of location and of
infection, though the sperm is healthy, yet, the boy becomes a leper
and unclean because of the corruption of the womb.”73 On this view,
gold is the only completely ripe metal. The rest are “leprous gold,”74 or
as Albertus says when rehearsing Arabic views of metallogeny, “abor-
tions of nature.”75 And again, deformation is typical. Alchemists hoped
to reverse or recapitulate the birth process with an ars chemica that is a
kind of animal husbandry to the elements. The goal is the “stripping of
accidents in metals,” employing the art of alchemy to generate “a new

body.”76 Turning tin and lead into gold was restoring metal to its original
purity, making a pristine, embryonic thing. All the talk of the germinal
powers is deliberately evocative of the cosmic egg, where all elements
were in turmoil before congealing into substances, and indeed, some
alchemists sought what they called a philosophical egg, pearl, or stone.77
Gower says there are three kinds of “stone,” the third of which is a most
eagerly desired reagent that “Transformeth al the ferste kynde / And
makth hem able to conceive / Thurgh his vertu, and to receive / Both
in substance and in figure / Of gold and selver the nature.”78 Alchemy
would accomplish a kind of autoreproduction, re-creating what the earth
mother had botched.79 Artisans, who found such metals indispensable
in many crafts, had a more practical sense of what could be made and
remade out of the natural resources. Yet all share a basic perception of
the matter: metals, for theorists and practitioners alike, amount to a set
of catalyzing forces, emergent qualities, and shifting identities. Miners
and metallurgists share with alchemists a sense of the living, morphing
substance and try to intervene in processes of growth. To use the terms
of evolutionary biology, resulting phenotypic differences owe as much to
environmental factors as to some inflexible, inherited genotype. In any
case, metal is less an unchanging essence than a dynamic topological
space in which elements converge and disperse, at geological and other
time scales. To talk of metals, then, is not to erect an immutable mate-
riality but to consider a matter that is fluid, ductile, mobile, and protean,
underlining a central claim of this book: the empirical is not to be seen
as some inert field, where “culture” always determines “nature.” Humans
are not the only agents of historical change; metals have histories too.


By now we have left a rigorous and virile hylomorphism behind in favor

of a more kinetic and complex materiality involving variable forms, ele-
ments, temperatures, locations, movements, stellar influences, and so
on. Indeed, metallogeny and alchemy leave no room for dualism.80 They
are fully matrixial if we are permitted to extend a psychoanalytic term.81
For without an extensive material matrix, there would be no intensive
forms: as Isidore writes, “material is always necessary for the production
of an object, just as we say that the elements are the materia of things,

because we see that it is from them that actual things are made. It is
called material (materia) as if the word were ‘mother’ (mater).”82 But my
point is not to reverse the gender polarity by positing matrilineal de-
scent, although alchemy teasingly suggests the possibility of such a rival
cosmological construction.83 The earth, rather, constitutes something
like what Morton dubs “queer ecology.” It is perverse and polymorphic,
not hylomorphic.84 Matter is ever mediating, morphing, constructing,
and conducting things in time and space. Human actors, too, are be-
lated followers of the things they take up and use. Matters occasion and
order human experiences, transmuting into scientific, theoretical, and
practical regimens. The movement is from simple and pure primordia
to complex and impure collectives. Ultimately, the relations of power
on display in a guild ordinance, for example, go “all the way down” to
the earth’s crust, if we care to look. Metals, that is, show the extent to
which culture is geological or autochthonous in a special sense, which
is to say fundamentally ecological or, for that matter, democratic.
In The Democracy of Objects, Bryant refers to the way objects exhibit
“exo-relations,” establishing new “regimes of attraction” that undermine
the “monarchy” of the human.85 It is evocative language that may aid us
as we relate what is known about metallic substance back to something
so trivial, so toylike, as a pewter horseman. In what ways does the mat-
ter “attract” relations within a local manifestation? We have assembled
enough evidence to suggest that, like a small clot in a circulatory system,
almost everything runs through and around the resulting coagulate:
meteorology, geology, metallurgy, domestic industry, international
economies, and military adventures. Something like the horseman,
just by virtue of its being substantiated in metal, collects within its small
frame relevant bodies of knowledge, practical know-how, technologies,
coalitions of matter, and so on, that constitute its identity. The alloy unit
is a material and technological ensemble that, like any knight depend-
ing on his steed and steel in fact, ends up fusing mineral, animal, and
human being. It is equipped with exo-relations.
More specifically, the man and mount are molded to create an
anomalous hollow-body action figure, which I take to be a hyperboli-
cal case of what Jeffrey Cohen calls a “medieval identity machine.”86
Notwithstanding the knight’s status as an idealized image of the Western
European male (with the aspirations toward wholeness and rationality

mentioned earlier in the discussion of the knight’s body), he depends

on his horse and a queer admixture of inanimate forces, animal en-
ergies, and technological prostheses. Every knight is a mineral–
animal–human hybrid.87 The miniature figurine is a comparable sort
of horsemanlike object, except that in so fully fusing horse and rider, it
is the more emphatically so—as if riding madly off in all directions. It
is worth recalling the (albeit conjectural) linguistic origins of the word
toy, whose root meanings may include “attire,” “dress,” “arms,” “tools,”
“apparatus,” and even “horse equipment.”88 Here we go beyond formal
resemblance (where the knight and animal look like a hybrid horse and
rider) to an ecological substrate (where the materials on which knights
depend are constitutively hybrid). Note, too, that the same pewter used
for the miniature horseman could plate iron spurs that equipped actual
knights. Affiliated metalworkers made edged tools and weapons, includ-
ing battle-axes, knives, and swords. All the knight’s various equipment
(coat of mail, plate armor, helmet, sword blade, prick spurs, horseshoes)
effectively translates or transcodes mineral matter into military tech-
nology and mounted shock combat in this period, as Lynn White Jr.
first made out, “weld[ing] horse and rider into a single fighting unit
capable of violence without precedence.”89 The late medieval diffusion
of the metal stirrup in particular “joined man and steel into a fight-
ing organism,”90 and this polymorphous chimera—what Deleuze and
Guattari call a “man-horse-stirrup constellation”91 and Crane a “combat
mechanism”92—was the basis of larger collectives. Knighthood, fusing so
much matériel and personnel together, constituted a military estate with
consolidated interests and an aggressive agenda. In short, the chevalier
is physically steeled to undertake the rigors of knighthood and defend or
forcibly extend the so-called common profit. The miniature horseman
is a parallel realization and extension of an incipient military–industrial
complex, a pewter product associated with the pride and profit of the
English. But it is no mere emblem of Englishness. Armiger is yoked to
artisan in a network of exo-relations (economic, political, symbolic)
in a local material manifestation, pointing to alternative regimes. Any
English exceptionalism that we find expressed in the object cannot be
sustained because (even if it can be taken to materialize an incipient
national spirit or deployed in mimetic war games) the object is fused
and diffused in ecologies far more capacious than any national fantasy.

The miniature is on this account quite like a knight, but now prob-
ably not in the way one would have liked to see himself portrayed. He
serves no monarchy. He is no solitary and self-sufficient aristocratic hero,
no lone knight errant taking adventures that are uniquely set for him and
his kind. As a pewter object, the miniature is vastly more errant because
it does not undertake merely human expeditions. This is not a metaphor.
Albertus Magnus describes metals themselves as erraticum motum, vari-
able or vagrant, influenced by roving celestial bodies (Greek πλανήτης
and Latin stella errantes).93 The metallic object is a microcosmic machine
that mirrors the greater macrocosm—a universe William of Conches,
among many others, refers to as a machina mundi made by an infinite
master-craftsman God.94 A concatenation of fire and water, tools and
trade practices, guilds and cities, domestic and international markets,
it is not limited to human designs in any case. So the pewter object is
not just a spectacle or receptacle of an idea; it is palpable matter on the
move. It is not a masculine figure but something more polymorphous.
Another way to put this is to say that the metal object is tantamount
to the “war machine” as Deleuze and Guattari define the term: exterior to
and militating against the state apparatus that might in any case deploy
such matters (e.g., to finance wars and sustain military institutions).95
Just as real war can prove disruptive to the institutions that go to war
(deterritorializing the state in the very act of extending territory), so
the military toy is an explosive object of sorts that may undermine any
instrumental purpose. Such objects can be seen as embodying not state
power but rather an open and dynamic set of exo-relations irreducible
to a solid state, stable hierarchy, or enforced peace. A toy is a small space
where state power occupies no privileged position and from which there
is no clear view of the common good. It is a site of becoming-mineral
and becoming-animal, though not of total absorption or dissolution. In
this context, we may recall Žižek’s main objection to Deleuzian “becom-
ings,” which, as it happens, Žižek illustrates by way of another toy: the
“so-called Transformer or Animorph toys, a car or a plane that can be
transformed into a humanoid robot, an animal that can be morphed into
a human or robot—is this not Deleuzian?”96 Deleuze is charged with
naively assuming that metamorphic objects are an automatic challenge
to late capitalism, which Žižek claims is already efficient at exploiting
radical deformations and rapid flows of matter, toying with life itself.

What is worth hearing in Žižek is a hesitant admission that nowadays, in

effect, Toys “R” Us. In proto-capitalist times, the exo-relations of which
we have spoken may have exerted more pressure. Medieval markets
were not quite so vaporous as they have become: the morphogenetic
flows of matter would have presented an alternative to the status quo.
Still, insofar as political economy then and now depends on relatively
homogenizing and hierarchical powers, the toy will remain a provoca-
tive polymorph: it resists reification.


In this territory, another threat comes in the form of mining practices

that extract material required by the present object. Chaucer’s “Former
Age” is a short poem on the Golden Age in which he notes that so much
human industry and misery has come about because “men first dide
hir swety bysinesse / To grobbe up metal, lurkinge in derknesse.” In
the blissful period before the Iron Age, “No coyn ne knew man which
was fals or treuw” and “Unforged was the hauberk [mail] and the plate
[armor].”97 Back then, there were no tyrants or tin soldiers. Mining is
implicated in a world of trouble. Consider one case from a period during
which tin and tin mining were linked in a series of paratactic relations
to a host of activities (milling, farming, fishing, coinage, overseas trade,
and military campaigning), all ostensibly under the auspices of Edward
the Black Prince, the first Duke of Cornwall. It is a historical example
of a regime that should help clarify the problem of monarchy indeed.
Edward oversaw a flourishing tin industry in the recently created
duchy and, as records show, was closely involved in managing natural
resources and monitoring labor and trade relations in the region. The
stannaries were a major source of revenue, and their operations some-
times drew the duke into the daily minutiae. The arrangement was never
trouble-free. In December 1352, he ordered profits “to be delivered by the
hands of his receivers of Cornewaille to the treasurers of his wardrobe,”98
issuing a directive that would grate against the Cornish miners who
ran their own courts and parliament.99 Cornish mining nevertheless
presented such an economic advantage that it was regularly conscripted
to support royal policy, or at least that is how the mining franchise was
portrayed. In real terms, profits from the stannaries sustained the duke’s

celebrated expeditions abroad (at Crecy in 1346, before going on to lead

successful charges in southern France), extending the territorial claims
of the Crown. Here we witness managerial responsibilities and military
actions converging with industry under royal jurisdiction but subject to
internal and external pressures of various kinds. Some tinners, having
fallen on hard times after the plague, concealed tin to avoid taxation.100
Fraudulent tin shells originating in Cornwall were being sold to the
Flemish, embarrassing the duke.101 Miners were accused of ravaging the
countryside and encroaching on various properties. The Black Prince
had to negotiate all the competing interests.102 All such cases are highly
instructive: miners, farmers, metalworkers, and even princes belonged
to a capacious collective even as they regularly fell in dispute over the
common good. Resources above ground (biomass cultivated in fields
and forests) came into tension with resources below (minerals and met-
als excavated from subsoil, and the fish in streams and inlets). Regions
conflicted with national and international interests; towns competed
with other towns for the tin staple. English merchants complained
about the rights of foreign ones, while other citizens grumbled about
the extraordinary “freedoms” of the tin miners.103 The Crown struggled
to maintain its authority over tin, which was eluding coinage and be-
ing smuggled out of the country; some was being stamped with false
dies. Human and nonhuman things were consequently bound together
in complicated sets of interdependencies, a meshwork that was in the
end not reducible to the goals of official power. No mere social contest,
Cornwall can be seen as one of various local outcrops in vast territories
where matters are collected and dispersed, continuing under Richard
of Bordeaux (next Duke of Cornwall and future King Richard II), who
finally tired of his Cornish possessions.104
I sketch the situation so as to do no more than hint at the political,
economic, and environmental contexts out of which came the material
to fashion small metal toys and trinkets. Cornish mining is evidence of
eclectic exo-relations and networks at work in later medieval England,
where, despite established hierarchies and explicit jurisdictions, there
is no way a knight—not even the legendary Black Prince—can hold
everything together. How should we describe this field of fraught rela-
tions? Stengers salvages the term cosmopolitics, which, for our purposes,
is probably preferable to Bryant’s democracy.105 The cosmopolitical realm

does not describe a uniform system with defined procedures, nor does
it drive toward equality or equilibrium; it is rather a congeries of human
and nonhuman entities drifting toward the future, and so it is something
more anarchic than democratic. Homeostasis may be the goal of parts
of the system (knights or princes, or parents for that matter), but it is
not manifest in the totality of interrelations. Ecologies are as agonistic
as they are expansive and inclusive.
Pewter products must now be seen as assemblages that extend eco-
logical dependencies, while also exacting human costs. Here the toy
shows up something more-than-human in the shape of a horseman.
Incommensurables cross paths in such miniature objects, tracing their
histories there, showing that so many competing interests and entities
constitute the real, into which we must inquire further. By this point, we
have explored many possibilities by mining the object, tunneling below
hegemonic powers to reveal the material relations, parts, or processes.
The trouble with the strategy of undermining (or “overmining,” as the
case may be, to adopt the specific terminology of Harman to which
I will return later in the book) is that it treats objects as though they
were just the sum of their relations, parts, or processes.106 It is to focus
on networks and cosmopolitics, but as Bryant also reminds us, “the
being of substance in its substantiality is something other than these
exo-relations.”107 What, if anything, can we say about the being itself?


So far the object has been considered by way of a set of proliferating

affiliations to bodies, industries, natural resources, and so on, but I want
to inquire more deeply into the peculiarity of the toy as plaything. The
miniature is not just a cipher or vector for social energies or economic
necessities, nor does such a thing occur naturally in the environment.
The plaything is singular substance, not a systemic one. A toy of all things
constitutes a real obstacle to any system because it stands apart from
adult perception and purpose. Sutton-Smith’s example is instructive:
“Will the plastic doll be used for mothering or to make a mock of moth-
ers? The toy itself cannot tell us.”108 Toys are full of surprises. Distracting,
absorbing, and enchanting, they tend to show both an aesthetic and
ascetic aspect in play. They show one side and conceal others. Bennett

opens her book on vibrant matter by recollecting “childhood experiences

of a world populated by animated things rather than passive objects.”109
She wants to recover the way things come alive, calling into question the
totalizing impulses of the prevailing culture. The separateness of the toy
remains an issue even as it forms intimate connections within sprawl-
ing networks. The toy knight in particular is doubly alienated from the
surrounding political economy—cut off from both craft and chivalric
labors—in its delightful and diverting materiality. These are paradoxi-
cal, not incompatible, experiences. An object in the original sense, a
plaything is present in advance of its representations. The toy knight
is an object thrown down between and before warcraft or smithcraft
and, though elusive, is also a most empirical matter subsisting in itself.
How would any such ontological reality be registered on human
thought? To some extent, use remains a guide despite the liabilities. In
becoming useable, things issue what Lingis calls imperatives. They direct
the visual apparatus, orchestrate movements, and require specific sorts
of handling. Specific acts consequently seem to be “delegated by the
thing.”110 An account of the pewter object has to take note of the way it
lends itself to being held, turned, bent, pushed, posed, hidden, and so
on. Such impressions are important because, by implication, they are
traces of an encounter with matter. Perception itself is an encounter that
happens before memory, and the mind seizes and sizes up the world
perceived. In those moments, the external object commands respect and,
as Merleau-Ponty says, “calls forth an act of attention.”111 Moreover, the
matter is discernible in the basic palpability and durability of the thing
sustaining a size, shape, hue, texture, density, and weight, obtaining an
internal consistency, reposing in a metallic existence. As Benso writes
of the phenomenon, “things possess a reality in themselves that can-
not be postponed or dislocated. Their materiality can be experienced,
enjoyed, even accessed, if only through a specific modality of approach
that comes into contact without possessing, so that access is never to-
talized.”112 She describes the object’s approach as a “touching mode of
tenderness,” denoting the way in which things present themselves to us
with a basic candor. Harman reaches for something like the same notion
when, following Levinas, he describes the “sincerity” of the objective
order.113 I take tenderness and sincerity both to mean that an object
comes, if it comes at all, to seem inevitably there. Some such effects are

registered in the object’s capacity to move across the senses, exerting

heft, emitting tones, lighting the eye. Yet the object is not identical to
the sensorium that is affected in an aesthetic or synaesthetic way. The
object affects and encroaches on the human who copes, if possible, with
an intractable and possibly a-signifying bit of reality. Objects carry out
ongoing projects in the crowded spaces of the world shared with other
objects (including us), being what they are no matter their temporary
objectification or signification. This means that while objects are given
to the senses, they are themselves becoming prior to being given. We
notice them emerging when they appear, but because acts of attention
register only a narrow field of action and sensation, we are also likely
to fail to capture all of the other ways in which a thing is being for itself.
Medieval perceptual psychology, interested in the reciprocity of
sensation, had no trouble imagining the way objects act on the body.
Theories of physical encounter will look familiar to anyone acquainted
with medieval ideas of intromissive vision. William of Conches cites
Hippocrates’s doctrine that “nothing can be perceived by a sense, un-
less its instrument first changes itself into the same nature as the thing
perceived,” and goes on to describe how a hand touching something
warm must meet the substance halfway by sending a bodily substance
across the palm, warming it.114 For Bartholomaeus Anglicus, the sensi-
tive flesh and sinews of the hand are said to grasp things and “takeþ þe
liknes þerof and presentiþ þe propertes þerof to þe soule.”115 Here is a
phenomenal point of mediation between the tendered object and the
tender hand that only recently became the object of philosophical in-
vestigations by Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Luc Nancy. We may be tempted
to think we are identifying only very minimal and generic conditions of
an immanent, embodied encounter with things, but medieval thinkers
do not take the intromission of physical feeling for granted. Touch is
called one of the “most erþeliche and boistous [crude or simple]” and
“more material” faculties of the sensate animal body, and consequently,
the impressions tend to be very strong indeed. Though failing to match
the powers of the visual (always the more privileged sense), the haptic
is understood to be essential to the orientation and affective life of the
individual. Without physical feeling, “alle þe wittis beþ [are] ilost.”116 It
was a commonplace from Aristotle that the sense of touch is a necessary
condition of survival. From this perspective alone, objects in the world

are indeed vivifying, though not all the time or in every situation. A
felt object may also be indifferent to our needs and cause pain as well as
pleasure.117 A plaything can seem all the more self-sufficient just because
it is given to ephemeral pleasures, in respect of which the object demands
an immediate recognition that something is no matter what its uses.
What is it about the plaything in particular that occasions such
reflections? Consider Serres’s description of ball play: “Playing is noth-
ing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance.”118
The playfulness of the ball is to be found in the reciprocity between
subject and object on a field of play. To say something is playful or a
plaything is to say that it is a playable object, which intentionally leaves
the category wide open for various improvisations and sensations of
course. All objects are “explorable.”119 Play is a form of exploration that
engages in successive trials, testing texture, curvature, tone, taste, size—
exposing the body to the impressions of empirical things. Objects make
themselves felt thereby, and playthings clamor for repeated handling.
They call for play as if setting no further task than to investigate a self-
sufficient matter at hand. Young children are more likely than others to
carry out the tasks without reserve, finding out through pretend play
and successive trials what an object can become in different situations.120
They experiment to discover the relations of parts and wholes, causes
and effects, developing what Sutton-Smith calls a peculiar “literacy of
objects.”121 They learn the expressions and articulations of the object
as an object, thrilling to the thingliness of things. So many things may
suffice as playthings on this account. Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, observed his grandson throwing and recovering a spool, what
would seem a nondescript thing caught up in the to-and-fro (Fort! Da!)
that is the essential rhythm of play. John Ruskin recalls that as a boy,
forbidden manufactured toys, he would play with keys and pass time
studying patterns in the carpet and counting bricks. Medieval children
showed comparable ingenuity: “Gerald of Wales, recalling his childhood
at Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, in the 1150s, tells how he and his brothers
played with sand and dust (perhaps on the nearby beach), they building
towns and palaces, he churches and monasteries.”122
Ratis Raving is the best account of how castoff foodstuffs and clothing
can be remade into toys, as we have already seen, but now we should
pause to consider the implications more deeply. Rait goes on to remark

that in early years (three to seven years old), an innocent period prior
to the age of reason, such playthings demonstrate that children are
not capable of good judgment or real work. The poet described their
“wantone wyrk,” anything from sportive to undisciplined activity, em-
ploying an adjective often associated with children in the period.123 Such
leisure is unproductive: the way in which these children are “rycht besy
thar about” to make ephemeral toys amounts only to an ill-conceived
“dawark” [daily activity]. And yet the paternalistic view is belied by the
list of creative inventions of children and their objects. Benjamin noticed
the same thing much later: “A child wants to pull something, and so he
becomes a horse; he wants to play with sand, and so he turns into a baker;
he wants to hide, and so he turns into a robber or a policeman. . . . No
one is more chaste in the use of materials than children: a bit of wood, a
pinecone, a small stone—however unified and ambiguous the material
is, the more it seems to embrace the possibility of a multitude of figures
of the most varied sort.”124 Agamben speaks of playthings accordingly in
a passage that offers a cogent theory of the toy as something ephemeral
and essentially temporal: “A look at the world of toys shows that children,
humanity’s little scrap-dealers, will play with whatever junk comes their
way, and that play thereby preserves profane objects and behaviours
that have ceased to exist. Everything which is old, independent of its
sacred origins, is liable to become a toy.”125 Children are playing with
history, no less, exploring the temporality of things by remaking them,
but not in a regular way. They do not make commodities. Nor do they
construct monuments, antiques, or archives. “The toy is a materialization
of the historicity contained in objects.”126 As he goes on to observe in a
pertinent example (recalling for us Rait’s notice of the way bits of bread
are treated), “the toy . . . uses ‘crumbs’ and ‘scraps’ belonging to other
structural wholes” and thereby deploys “not simply these crumbs and
scraps, but—as the case of miniaturization makes clear—the ‘crumbness,’
if one can put it that way, which is contained in the temporal form within
the object or the structural whole from which it departs.”127 A crumb is
ephemeral. Deleuze says something comparable in his brief invocation
of Klein–Winnicott object relations theory, where toys and other virtual
objects are envisaged as a past history become contemporaneous. They
are creative repetition, returning to infantile experience. “Virtual objects
are shreds of pure past.”128

That toys often come from discards of the household is suggestive

of the fact that they are contingent, temporary, or what is better called
temporalized objects, spolia possessed of a latency that only appears
in some future situation. “A broken, worn, or unvalued object may be
deliberately passed on to a child: in this sense, children may function in
the biography of an object as a temporary or transitional phase in the
deposition process.”129 Old bread and scraps of fabric are toy materi-
als that no longer work in the domestic economy; they are excessive,
redundant, wasted objects; they are refuse that refuses to be managed
anymore, or that at least goes unremarked, disowned, dispossessed.
Such things are now more than ever themselves, escaping by way of their
superfluity outside of systems of ownership and dominion. Given the
long association between toys and trash (and, according to the Oxford
English Dictionary, there may be etymological connections between toy
and Dutch tuig and German zeug, meaning “trash”), playthings might
seem destined for the past, left behind, but in fact it is the reverse: they
exhibit a capacity for futurition.130 That means they are never easy to
find in the historical record; often they are lost to history because they
are only too historical as ephemera. A range of pewter toys was rescued
from oblivion from what may have been a dump alongside the Thames,
the river having been “used by Londoners as a convenient refuse tip.”131
Other toys may never be known: they are “archaeologically invisible
in terms of the trajectory of an artifact’s life course—a brooch will
continue to be viewed by adults as a brooch, even if a child has tem-
porarily appropriated it into a game. Nonetheless, contact with a child
moves the object, however briefly, into a new and different set of object
classification and relationship with human users.”132 Toys are always
liable to have been reclaimed, repurposed, or reverse engineered out
of everyday things. And moreover, toys may persist in some unknown
quarter of the universe without anyone to play with, languishing. In be-
ing so unassuming, they can also seem extraordinary, esoteric, secretive
things. They materialize history, slipping indistinguishably away in the
archive. They also dematerialize in the solvent of temporality. Toys easily
elude public record or governing bodies, constituting a kind of surplus,
or exhaustion, or redundancy. Ariès long ago identified the ambiguity
of childish things in the reflexive way medieval children employ toys
to emulate adult behavior: “Children form the most conservative of

human societies.”133 But children are conservative, if that is in fact the

right word, to the extreme, preserving and stockpiling what adult society
rejects. By the end of the Middle Ages, “childhood was becoming the
repository of customs abandoned by the adults.”134 Children waste time
and energy on such things, toying with trash. Children enjoy things,
which is likely to be an embarrassment to critical thought and educa-
tional philosophy, insofar as thinkers do not make a space for naive and
maladaptive—perverse, not productive—enjoyment.135


Medieval theories of play attempt to rescue children from such excesses,

recalling the imperative to put childish things away (1 Corinthians 13:11).
In the relevant medieval “recreational justifications” of play, indeed, the
role of play was circumscribed: play ideally spares the body for a time
that it may work the better afterward.136 For example, Aquinas follows
Augustine in teaching that play and games are not themselves sufficient
or efficient (i.e., as a “species” they are “not directed to an end”), but
they can be indirectly profitable (for the “recreation and rest of the
soul”).137 Giles of Rome, for his part, thinks play serves a restricted
purpose: it can occupy a vacant mind and offer relief from work, and as
we have seen, it helps to cultivate the well-ruled body.138 Like Augustine
and Aquinas, he censures those who engage in dishonest or excessive
play. Children, lacking reason, are liable to “playe to moche.”139 Such
teachings inevitably look back to Augustine’s fundamental distinction
between use (uti) and enjoyment ( frui), according to which pleasures
taken in sensible things should be directed to higher ends. Things of
the world are used when they refer beyond themselves to proper ends
and enjoyed when they are treated as ends in themselves.140 Aquinas and
Peter Lombard, among others, follow Augustine closely.141 The hazard
is in coming to idle in an imperfect enjoyment, failing to allow things
(sensible pleasures) to act as signposts to the objects (intellectual goods)
that are above all others worthy of love. Abiding in sensibilia essentially
prevents forward movement (Augustine speaks of vehicles for a journey
home) or the abstraction from material goods to the universal and im-
material divine good. The circumstances under which one can delight
in things are strictly defined, and by implication, sensible things are
always likely to be vitiating.

In Augustine’s formulation, “illicit use should be called rather a waste

or an abuse.”142 Nominating this illicit activity abusio, Augustine chooses
his words carefully: he alludes to a rhetorical trope (catachresis) for the
improper substitution of an approximate term for something proper.143
It is as if the very idea of abuse offends propriety and Augustine must
toy with words to find an indirect expression. He is enjoying himself too
much. I would rather say toys exhibit the sort of “abuse value” Serres des-
ignates as that relation which precedes use-value or exchange-value.144
Abuse testifies to a thing’s drifting away (from ab- “away” and uti “to
use”) from some official role in work. As improper objects, toys are not
recreative in the way Augustine or Aquinas would prefer, rather inducing
excess involvements with the material realm that subjects are supposed
to transcend. On this account, the toy is an intransitive object that resists
other ends besides its own, representing a kind of inutile perversity and
purposelessness (or at least they are so versatile and thickly material as
to eschew a single purpose in play). All talk about “children’s culture” is
wrong-headed if it does not admit the abusive, refractory, materialistic,
excessive matter of child’s play and playthings. It is often assumed that
play is useful (as in the popular slogan “play is children’s work”) so that
“the issue of play’s dysfunctionality is never fully reckoned with.”145
Toys are not elementary units of culture. Their special capability is
to facilitate an encounter with the sensual qualities of things (forces,
tendencies, textures, etc.), expressing what Bennett would call a stripped-
down “thing-power.” She regularly associates this virtual capacity of
things with childhood play. “Thing-power perhaps has the rhetorical
advantage of calling to mind a childhood sense of the world filled with all
sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not.
It draws attention to the efficacy of objects in excess of the human mean-
ings, designs, or purposes they serve.”146 Toys are more or less oblique
to systems of reference and everyday utility, and it is tempting to think
that they make of children almost natural, spontaneous practitioners of
Husserlian or Gadamerian phenomenology.147 Without romanticizing
childhood play, we can observe that children tend to gather so many pos-
sible perceptions of a given object (sensibilia), letting consciousness flow
through and wrap around the thing, as if “bracketing” the natural atti-
tude that makes things familiarly practical. The immanence of sensation
is not signification. And so we may add to our analysis so far that a toy
is not merely significant, because toys are more res than signa: playthings

are among the objects that are most thinging, to borrow Benso’s term
for a present but nonrepresentational materiality.148 Sutton-Smith’s idea
of play is again instructive: “In play, more than anywhere else, apart
from madness, the player can escape the usual orthodox links between
signs and their referents.”149 Playthings are sensible things that, from
the standpoint of mature philosophical thinking, are liable to drag one
down into created substance. In that regard, they must be seen as actively
resisting and dissolving static forms, figures, and signs; they threaten to
annihilate ordinary human relations, returning things to chaos out of
which they they may emerge again, caught up in the destructive–creative
cycle of play. To refer toys to chaos is to evoke the everyday entropic
disorder that attends children at play—because to play is often to play
havoc with things, abusing them again and again—but also a more tech-
nical sense of extinction and eventuation of formed matter discussed
earlier in this book in the relation to embryogenesis and cosmogony.
I refer not to a void space but to a virtual condition. Play is inceptive,
creating and destroying little worlds, calling attention to the recessive
and emergent qualities of everyday matters. Many have observed the
way children will sometimes repeat a word until it becomes senseless,
babbling as though linguistic signs were only so many empty baubles.
Playful ruination can take many expressions. Toys are regularly broken
in the violence of play, but more crucially, they constitute brokenness
(Agamben’s “scraps” and Deleuze’s “shreds”), which qualifies them as
objects of abuse and analysis. They are like vulnerable little Heideggerian
hammers becoming present-to-hand, suddenly an issue for those who
need equipment to work.150 They slough off instrumental value. Toys
accordingly diminish great matters that are normally operative; they
relate to themselves and others as inoperative, scrapped, atomized, but
always in a possible state of becoming otherwise.
The test is whether even the most ideologically charged playthings
as metal soldiers and feminine dolls are so virtualized, and indeed I
think everything we have observed about objects (as means and ends,
engaging and withdrawing, explorable and inexhaustible reservoirs)
readily applies. The toy exists as sensation, surplus, abuse, and has sur-
prises in store; it is a virtual matter that repeats familiar forms with a
difference. Benjamin offers a suggestive example: “Once mislaid, broken,
and repaired, even the most princely doll becomes a capable proletarian

comrade in the children’s play commune.”151 A sovereign figure is de-

posed, falling to insurgent matter, introducing another regime of at-
traction. The toy itself seems to secure autonomy in a sort of anarchic
materiality, having toppled the “monarchy” of the human again. Toy
knights may be equally dissident in ways that we cannot predict in
advance, partly because they are so exiguous.


Miniaturization prompts competing intuitions about the matter at hand.

Miniatures above all can seem to gratify the manipulating hand and eye,
and as mentioned, they are so often made for display. But on reflection
they also seem to resist prehensile, possessive humans, positing mate-
rial possibilities beyond the grasp and gaze; and they are not always
cute. Some of their power may derive from just this sort of ambiguity.
We have already had occasion to notice that small scale is a way to
highlight craft labor, drawing attention to human technical capabilities
and ingenuity. This is just as true of pewter toys as of Moghul paint-
ings, Japanese netsuke carvings, Roman micromosaics, Anglo-Saxon
broaches, and English pendant portraits. But there are other ways in
which models and miniatures show off human handiwork and may
satisfy a boundless hubris. Aquariums, dollhouses, video games, globes,
and Google Earth just as much as the camera obscura or mappa mundi:
miniaturized scenes of almost infinite variety can be seen as sites of all-
too-human fantasies of omnipotence and omnipresence. Do scale-model
vehicles and environments not express a basic desire for freedom and
self-determination? Where else can one enjoy such transcendence and
totalizing views, but in small, simulated environments? What delusions
of grandeur are manifested here? As Bachelard says, miniatures are
“dominated worlds.”152 The point is well enough illustrated by The Sims
3, ads for which promise all the voyeurism and ventriloquism one could
desire through the systematic diminution of things and the creation
and control of wee simulacra; the player is to enjoy supernatural power
(“Get rich! Get lucky! Get even!”). Here the human as demiurge creates
and destroys little worlds at whim, indulging in Heideggerian world-
forming that is supposedly a special human inheritance. Architects’ and
engineers’ relations to scale models are arguably similarly structured,

and the implications may be no less profound. Prototype design is

all about maximizing control of things by minimizing size. Military
planners deploy scale models for the sole purpose of overcoming alien
territories. Forensic science uses dollhouses to study crime scenes, and
there is a long-running association between law enforcement and min-
iaturization.153 Miniatures are regularly conscripted within command
and control hierarchies, made to serve adult and typically masculinized
purposes. Maps and globes similarly facilitate conquests. Reduced car-
tographic images are absorbed at a glance and with minimal effort. One
can hover over miniatures without moving the entire body. For children,
small scale can be vitally enabling and consoling too, facilitating a form
of mimetic play or performance; a miniature is a serviceable transitional
object. Adults can benefit in a similar way from miniaturization, employ-
ing small figures (scale replicas, models, teaching toys) for therapeutic
effects. As Benjamin says, “The adult, who finds himself threatened by
the real world and can find no escape, removes its sting by playing with
its image in reduced form.”154 Bachelard nearly concurs: “The cleverer I
am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.”155
But there are weirder aspects to miniaturization that throw up ob-
stacles to the claims for human transcendence and totalization. Small
versions of things can be profoundly estranging and overwhelming;
some elude capture once they are made, as if indicative of something
fugitive in small-scale matters generally.156 Historically speaking, many
small-scale devotional objects, including pilgrim badges, votive effigies,
sacred statuary, reliquaries, holy dolls and puppets, do not appear to
bear out Bachelard’s theory of miniaturization as minimization. Cult
objects, regularly scaled down, were credited with prodigious powers
over adherents. My main interest is in playthings, but I want to pause
long enough to entertain two other examples of physical reduction to
get the analysis off the ground. The first is the medieval mappa mundi,
a difficult case because often instrumentalized and territorializing, at
worst serving as a weaponized form of miniaturization at a time when
eastward travel was bound up with dreams of imperial expansion. And
yet viewing a map is an equivocal experience because, while the panoptic
observer seems to be able to rise above the known world, vast tracts of
space are not obtained in the cartographic rendering of them. A map
posts the human to an elevated position of spectatorship that is akin to an

imaginary “view from nowhere.” Practically speaking, one cannot dwell

within or drive through the exiguous scene or simulacrum, requiring
other kinds of vehicles. An astrolabe may be just the sort of equipment
one needs, another thing for scaling down vast territories, producing flat
and figurative descriptions (see Plate 5). It is portable and compact in
the hand, small enough to stow on the person but with an outlook that
is immense. Meager as the thing appears, an astrolabe is a star-catcher
(astrolabe from the Greek), which makes it not just instrumental but a
novelty item that might appeal to a child. And here we come closer to
my own concerns. Recalling the gift described in Chaucer’s unfinished
Treatise on the Astrolabe, which he wrote for his ten-year-old son (a
“litel tretys” for “Lyte Lowys”), indeed it could be treated as a toylike
contrivance for “a child to lerne.”157 Not that it is necessarily easy to
operate, but such a thing would become whatever the child makes of it.
As discussed previously, information flowing into the object is reduced
and reformatted, namely horizontalized, and yet the astrolabe is flatten-
ing in another sense, as liable then as now to be a decorative pendant
or plaything—serving ornamentation, not instrumentation. Isidore
explains that the Greeks call the cosmos κόσμος, an ornament, which
recalls that the universe belongs to the cosmetic, sensational realm of
appearance and appeals to affect and not just intellect.158 That is partly
why we may think of mappae mundi and astrolabes as allied to toy on-
tology, distracting from rational, routine procedures, without denying
that those same technologies could have abetted mature ideological
programs (e.g., drawing borders, marginalizing races, choreographing
imperial expansion). It is just that, phenomenologically speaking, the
experience of hovering over them is not identical with any ideology and
may instead be rather like the view afforded by the window seat on an
airplane, where “the city one knew so well becomes something almost
inhuman: neighbourhoods one thought so discrete, streets that were
ordinarily corridors of meaningful space, open up and flatten out. . . . Life
becomes a toy.”159 But mappae mundi and astrolabes are not exactly fly-
ing machines either, and they can only allude to spatiotemporal realities
that are not quite the space and time of the miniature.
At the furthest extreme, miniatures may also be disorienting and
dysfunctional, expelling human observers from their little worlds. They
include uninhabitable and inutile items: tables, dishes, birdcages, cradles,

candle holders, and so on.160 Here the small emphatically thwarts hu-
man habitude even as it appears homelike, heimlich. That experience
is recorded in the very definition of the unheimlich, as Freud observes
in his famous essay, where the uncanny is the effect of recurrence (as
in the terror of the “double”).161 Freud notes that dolls in particular may
arouse an uncanny feeling, which he claims is rooted in infantile anxiety
and primitive animist belief. Stewart writes that the dollhouse prom-
ises an “infinitely profound interiority,”162 a retreat to mental spaces of
meditation, but her description probably overestimates the familiarity
of the dollhouse and mistakes effect for cause. A house within a house
containing rooms within rooms, the dollhouse is a form of doubleness
and constitutes inner recesses without access, which is why, instead
of entry, one is stuck with reverie. To put this into some perspective,
consider Heidegger’s entrance into a comfortable study furnished with
writing utensils, a table, good lighting, windows, and doors: “These
‘Things’ never show themselves proximally as they are for themselves,
so as to add up to a sum of realia and fill up a room. What we encounter
as closest to us . . . is the room; and we encounter it not as something
‘between four walls’ in a geometrical spatial sense, but as equipment
for residing.”163 In the case of miniatures, however, the observer is liable
to take stock of the furniture as so much alien realia, more present-to-
hand than ready-to-hand. Differences in scale exacerbate the problem
because they offer what we can call repetitions of the real, simulating
that which is clearly absent or blocked. Relegated outside, the observ-
ing subject has no way to “reside in” or “get into” some small spaces.
Millhauser concludes an essay on the fascination of miniatures with the
following plaintive thought:

I think of Alice and the little door. I want to be small, I want to

pass through the door into the enchanted garden. And here is the
farthest I can see into the mystery of the miniature: its separation
from myself, its banishment of me. Hence the sadness, the secret
poignance, of dollhouses, model whaling ships, glass animals,
little automatons.164

Repeated play leads to the realization, as children’s stories often indicate,

that the dollhouse is a better physical habitation for mice or elves than

for humans. It is not a dwelling, at least not for us. It only doubles as one
in fantasy, and that fact may be the source of frustration. Perhaps min-
iatures of various kinds are the more devastating and adverse recurrent
things, small replicas declaring their exteriority to life. The orientation of
some gorgeous miniaturization today is indeed towards the catastrophic.
The high-fidelity postapocalyptic dioramas built by the artist Lori Nix
include crumbling baroque rooms full of wasted objects. They seem to
be exactly what miniaturization calls for: vivid scenes of a depopulated
future. Small toy replicas accordingly offer no concessions to ordinary
purposes, and we should not expect that they could. No matter how
realistic, doll dishes and furniture are set out for no one in particular;
toy knights cannot do battle. All of these are alien intimates—which is
perhaps what Lévi-Strauss meant by saying that “all miniatures seem to
have an intrinsic aesthetic quality”165—suggesting that miniatures bar
instrumental or intentional use.
Freud also likens the experience of the uncanny to “the sense
of helplessness sometimes experienced in some dream-states.”166
Miniaturization is a kind of physical condensation and displacement
(bearing all the hallmarks of dreamwork), but on an affective level, what
makes dwarfish versions of things eerie is that they are so familiar. They
present the recurrence of the same in the form of dreadful, shrunken
worlds. A high degree of lifelikeness in many artificial life-forms (wheth-
er androids, automatons, or CGI animations) produces feelings that
range from fascination to horror. Just so, a doll face is altogether too
smooth and symmetrical, suggesting that a mannerist expression may
be intrinsic to human figurines. Consider speed and momentum too.
As any model boat or car instantly shows, tiny replicas do not behave
like their full-size counterparts. A model boat will typically wobble
too rapidly in a pond because forces of surface tension and wind act
differently on a model of its size than on a full-scale version; a toy car
does not get the same traction a full-size version would because of the
forces of gravity and inertia. Miniature moving bodies tend to look as
though they are in time-lapse mode. Engineers struggle with the issue
whenever they create model prototypes whose tolerances they need to
test. Scaling up geometrically is not sufficient because kinematic and
dynamic forces are differential. Technicians sometimes create total en-
vironments in the lab to achieve the highest possible degrees of analogy,

but such barren scenes as wind tunnels or simulations are only more
alien apparatuses. Scale interferes one way or another, moreover, owing
to the perceptions of duration. Recent experiments in cognitive science
show that the experience of time passing is relative to spatial scale such
that duration seems compressed in small-scale model environments.
The results are systematic: the more compressed the scale model, the
more compressed is the temporal experience.167 In other words, sub-
jects overestimate the amount of time that has actually elapsed. The
relativity of space-time occurs not just in perception but also in the
imagination. “Subjective time seems to run faster during the inspec-
tion of a small-size compared with a larger-size mental image.”168 The
concentrated attention required of viewing small-scale items probably
explains the results, for “the smaller the scale the more dense the spatial
distribution of information.”169 The overestimation of time, from the
subject’s point of view, is converted afterward into a sense that clock
time had slowed down in the presence of the small, giving credence to
Stewart’s point that miniatures elicit “the infinite time of reverie.”170 My
point is that miniatures often appear inauthentic, dreamy, a little other-
worldly: owing to shallow depth of field, abnormal color saturation, a
lack of graduated detail, rapid movements, or too much exactitude given
what one naturally expects, the miniature remains at odds with the
run of things.
Not everything small counts as miniature, because miniaturization
is constituted not by size alone but by a discrepancy of size. A miniature
cauldron is not fascinating simply because it is small but rather because
it is undersized. The discrepancy results in a “distortion” that can “shock
us into attention.”171 Such things present themselves as iterations of re-
ality just slightly askew of real things and put us into relation with the
very skew. The miniature, like the gigantic, unsettles the narcissism of
normative stature thereby, recalling humans to their scale-bound exis-
tence. The idea is expressed in the observation of William of Conches
that a trench humans easily step across must be, to an insect, a huge
valley surrounded by mountains.172 Mixed scale is equally challenging
but a regular part of child’s play. Unsurprisingly, medieval paintings of
children at play show that often the “relative size of the toys in a group
are disproportionate.”173 For adults, miniature objects in such an array
are sometimes hard to put in taxonomic order. Museums encounter the

problem whenever they attempt to sort small-scale replicas: “it is evident

that the toymakers were producing similar forms to different scales
concurrently. What appears to be a tiny saucer within this [Museum of
London] sample, could be regarded as a moderately large dish in another
context. At what point does a large decorated plate become a charger, a
large dish a basin, or a small dish a saucer?”174 Such diminutive things
set their custodians helplessly adrift and insist on some relative detach-
ment, or autonomy, from the situation. The miniature does not snap to
grid against the given background.
We cannot reconstruct all the ways in which a toy like the pewter
knight may have showed up such weird aspects, but there is no doubt it
would have. Miniature objects are likely to be highly objectival (to coin
a term that stands in contrast to mere perspectival difference), which is
to say, conspicuously and sensuously material. They are not just mental
constructs; they themselves may construct or obstruct a phenomeno-
logical field. Fourteenth-century optical theory gets at the problem in
noticing the angle of vision one must take on small things. The human
observer does not determine the best viewing angle, as though it were
ever possible to see things as we would. Among the many conditions
that must be satisfied for sight to occur at all (including the correct
distance, sufficient lighting, and an unobstructed view), according to
Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus’s On the Properties of Things,
things must be the right size for the eye in the first place, “for a þing may
be so litil þat it may noȝt be iseye [seen] in no space.”175 And as Nicole
Oresme says in his discussion of minima, “a thing is not seen under
every possible angle.”176 For the very small, there may be no optimal
viewing angle at all. Some things remain invisible; others get averaged
out in sight.177 The result is deformation leading to confusion or, at best,
a compromise. Normally, the closer one looks at something, the more
information can be derived, but small-scale figurines do not always yield
the expected detail either. A miniature demands strained and repeated
looks; it is not taken in at a single glance and so has a temporal aspect.
Miniatures take time. As for the pewter figurine, at arm’s length, the
knight is recognizably humanoid and equestrian, if relatively indistinct;
up close, the thing becomes distinctly textured, but the surface is not that
of a human or animal body. You see the impress of stone on metal, not
skin tones and bone structure. You notice oddly extended, thin arms.

You peer at apertures leading to hollowness within; you see seams and
edges, dents and scrapes, and perhaps some oxidation. The result is a
specific kind of alienating intimacy, proximate distance wrought by the
scale and surface appearance of a small thing.178


Exterior and autotelic though miniatures are, they make their incursions
on a body felt, and ultimately, it is for the sake of what they can tell us
about those aesthetic experiences that I pursue these thoughts. Scale
is by definition relative to a given body, and when it comes to extreme
diminution, the sense of size is often expressed in relation to the hand,
establishing a set of somatic expectations pinned to our creatural speci-
ficity.179 Beyond that appendage, however, it is useful to have recourse to
what Lingis, following Merleau-Ponty, calls a whole “postural schema,”
our embodied manner of knowing and encountering the world: the
ways fingers hold a cup, the back leans against a chair, or the eyes see a
face to advantage.180 Postures, gestures, manners, gait all show the traces
of the world playing off against the body. Playing with things has long
been seen as a way of acquiring the right postures, as witnessed earlier
in Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum. Giles is a medieval witness to
the phenomenological observation that the bodily schema is developed
over time, and, as Lingis would say, that the body is proof of exposure
and involution in a material medium. Inanimate things trace their his-
tories that way. Of course, Giles introduces a normative element into his
account of play and games, his immediate interest being in exercising the
body to sort out correct ways of operating mouth, ear, hand, shoulder,
and leg. The child is elevated above beasts by physical deportment. Yet
miniaturization is likely to throw off any such kinaesthetic equilibrium
(i.e., the decorum that Giles describes as belonging to the princely or
knightly body), compelling a body to reckon not just with the scale of
an object but also with the size and sense of the human subject before
whom an object presents itself. For one thing, human proprioception
(i.e., the perception of spatiotemporal position of the body) may be at
risk given what we have noticed about the speed and duration of scaled
objects. It may result in vertigo.
The very small calls on us again to abandon any absolute sense of the

world, and yet it is just because of that uncanny aspect that miniature
things insist on repeated handling. Small-scale matters confound but
incessantly compel the observer. As Benjamin has observed, “the law of
repetition” in children’s play may enact a desire to return to something
that is out of reach in the small toy, “the reinstatement of an original
condition from which it sprang.” An uncanny reprise of the real, a rep-
etition of something that normally works, serves, or signifies, the toy
gives rise to the children’s imperative: “Do it again!”181 The miniature in
general is fundamentally a source of dramaturgical possibilities, small
performances that put the human and other objects into play.
Some medieval puppets may permit us to get a handle on this par-
ticular dynamic, where humans and small-scale human simulacra are
made to interanimate. The hypnotic vitality of puppet play is well at-
tested.182 As if resurrected from dead matter, these avatars often seem
to harbor strange and secret lives, and they give rise to complex per-
ceptions of independent existence, artificial intelligence, and animistic
self-possession. Appeals to magic or metempsychosis sometimes help
put in focus the uncanny phenomenon of animated dolls, exuberant
things despite all impediments, enjoying an apparent sentience and
spectrality even when their apparatus indicates the opposite. In this
context, androids and cyborgs in the popular imagination today spring
to mind, where human simulacra threaten to overcome their masters.
There are much earlier precedents.183 Medieval Christian automaton
devils and saints may be added to the inventory of things that are relied
on to evoke powerful spiritual presences; others include devotional dolls
that enlist adherents in intimate relationships with wooden or cloth
effigies.184 Puppets are ordinary amusements that may generate frisson
too. Only a few medieval puppets and related effigies survive today, and
those made from less durable materials than clay, wood, or metals would
have disintegrated long ago. There is no hope of recovering the “cumly
lady of a clout” recalled in Ratis Raving. But we know something about
medieval customs of incorporating puppetry into minstrel entertain-
ments, folk theater, and religious drama185 (see Plate 8).
Metal puppet heads survive from late medieval London, and they
may serve as handy object lessons leading up to a discussion of literary
miniaturization and puppetlike characters.186 One is perhaps that of a
court jester donning a fool’s cap, while two others probably represent

caricatured Jews wearing the pileum cornutum.187 These may have been
mounted on sticks or used as finger puppets. Some negative affordances
or agencies of miniature humanoid figurines are observable right away:
the grotesques seem to diminish and deface some abject other. They
are dehumanizing and, in two cases at least, occupy the same space in
the social imaginary as the absent, spectral Jew.188 And yet whatever the
diminished physiognomy, a puppet head comprehends a complex set of
phenomenal possibilities in practice. It is not just that the puppet is a
powerful stereotyping device. A performing object, the small thing relies
on a complex bodily encounter between finger and metallic figurine:
someone, in short, is invited to put on and play out the fool. Fingers
might become the arms of the thing; and palm, chest (see Plate 9).
The human soma is reconstituted and retasked thereby, reoriented
to serve as a material support for the instrumental life of a plaything.
The working of bones and muscles called on in the operation of the
new bodily extremity also recalls one’s own inhuman puppetlikeness.
The analogy between human and puppet anatomy is venerable: “so
nature,” says Galen, “well before man discovered the same artifice, has
in the same way constructed the articulation of our body.”189 Aristotle
amplified the idea: “The movements of animals may be compared with
those of automatic puppets, which are set going on the occasion of a
tiny movement (the strings are released, and the pegs strike against
one another). . . . Animals have parts of a similar kind, their organs,
the sinewy tendons to wit and the bones; the bones are like pegs and
the iron; the tendons are like the strings; for when these are slackened
and released movement begins.”190 Of course, a puppet, in this case
an insentient lead alloy thing again, is not another part of the natural
body but acts like an extension: it is liable to be incorporated into hu-
man proprioception like some phantom limb. A puppet, consequently,
becomes a proxy body that draws the human performer into inhuman
fictions, especially so if they involve anti-Semitic pantomime—recalling
Adorno and Horkheimer’s observation, “There is no anti-Semite who
does not basically want to imitate his mental image of a Jew, which is
composed of mimetic ciphers.”191 But can we not also say that the human
performer becomes a cipher thereby? Rising up like some metallic golem,
the puppet grows in fascination and fleshliness, estranging the self and
not just the other. It suspends the postural schema. This is admittedly

a most difficult case but should suggest nonetheless that the puppet
is not an emblem of otherness, as though it were merely referential.
For that, one would not need so much. A puppet is rather a sociable
creature in a human drama, materializing a scaled-down, proximate
A mechanical animal puppet from the same period may provide
one further gloss on the physical and dramaturgical possibilities, which
depend on an assumed interanimation of incommensurable species.
This is a hollow-cast pewter bird whose tongue can be made to dart in
and out on a pivot when the tail is depressed by the hand.192 No passive
object, the bird articulates with and not just for the human who works
its fine mechanism, rendering the human (merely) pivotal. Who knows
what the “mechanimal” thing will be made to perform? What birdsong,
chatter, or clatter? In practice, such an object—like many other mechani-
cal fowls found in classical and medieval traditions—situates subjects
within the theater of its own making and moving, extending life into
and across a dynamic mineral–animal–human assemblage.193
The pejorative senses of puppet as pawn, dupe, and stooge direct us
away from the lived possibilities, and here I want to make a larger point
that is relevant to any number of cultural practices, including those
most rarefied, literary ones I will consider next. For what needs to be
avoided in any analysis of such agential figures (miniature or otherwise)
is a strict division between autonomy (as in puppeteer) and attachment
(as in puppet). It is to Latour that we may look for a way beyond the
false dichotomy:

There is not a single puppeteer, however confident of her skill to

manipulate figurines, who does not claim that her puppet char-
acters “make her do” the motions in their story, “dictate” to her
their lines, instigate new ways of moving, “which surprise even
her” and “which she would not have thought of herself.” Let us
not hurry to retort that these are “manners of speaking” without
any real sense: the vocabulary of attachment is rich, protean,
ubiquitous, nuanced—that of autonomy and determination scant
and dry. For those who claim to be attentive to attachments, this
is a valuable index. To speak of freedom and causality, one will
inevitably do violence to the conditions of attachment, whether

in the sciences, in questions of taste, in medicine, in discussions

of drugs, the law, or emotions. In contrast, as soon as we try to
understand what permits a puppet to be made to act by its pup-
peteer, we refer to the specific features of the particular puppet:
its color, shape, lighting, the feel of its taffeta, the whiteness of its
porcelain arms.194

The choice is not between free subjects and abject subjection but between
noticing and neglecting to notice how agency is distributed. As Latour
writes, “The only way to liberate the puppets is for the puppeteer to
be a good puppeteer. . . . The more strings the marionettes are allowed
to have, the more articulated they become.”195 Other forms of human
articulacy and liveliness are just as reliant on appurtenances.



A fragment of the Canterbury Tales calls on our awareness of the small

but potent charms of childish things. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas, an un-
dersized adventure in tail rhyme, is one of the places where Chaucer
contemplates the value and virtual life of a trifle, a trinket, mere fiction.
Because we are dealing with literary miniaturization, there are additional
questions to ask about the scaled-down representational medium. How
are miniatures characterized, and are characters akin to puppets or
figurines? What are the implications of small scale for fiction?
Chaucer’s interest in diminished scale begins in the Prologue to Sir
Thopas, where the Host makes elliptical remarks about the stature of the
pilgrim-poet on horseback: “This were a popet in an arm t’embrace / For
any womman, smal and fair of face.” Smallness had already been empha-
sized in the previous tale about the little boy doted on by the Prioress,
anticipating the protagonist to follow (child Thopas), and now the word
“popet” bridges the two. The Host’s teasing introduction achieves several
things at once, assigning to the poet-pilgrim the role of child, child’s doll,
figurine, or puppet. It is an ambiguous attribution not least because his is
the first recorded instance of popet in English, but in any case, Chaucer
is to be seen as a dainty, darling little thing.196 It is to answer one enigma
with another: “What man artwo [are you]?”197 Chaucer is no more than a

small amusement for grown women, and nor is he a likely erotic partner
for one. The embraces he can expect are those one condescends to give
a child or child’s toy. The Host is infantilizing and feminizing the poet
as much as pointing up his childlike features (small, plump, shy), and
given Harry’s concern with regulating masculinity, these are no doubt
supposed to be one and the same deficiencies. Perhaps, if anything, we
should be thinking of Chaucer the pilgrim as akin to Alison, “So gay a
popelote,” back in the Miller’s Tale.198
There are additional implications to the scene if we think of Chaucer
momentarily and gamely posing as a child’s toy, especially as a puppet
that might be handled. For there is just the possibility that Chaucer
likens himself to a miniaturized, impersonal, and asexual object em-
ployed in a minor theatrical tradition (perhaps folk theater in the town
square or minstrel performances at court, if anything more than child’s
play), inviting the audience to think of him as moved by external forces.
More ventriloquized than ventriloquizing, he is that putative reporter
or compiler he pretends to be back in the General Prologue, but now
with fresh implications. He is no adept and not even an autonomous
and articulate subject. He is an articulated object. He is only technically
a subject. He will, for example, submit to the Host’s wishes for a “tale of
myrthe, and that anon,” cranking out a mechanical romance fit for the
puppet theater before being told to stop and produce something else
from his repertoire.199 Moreover, it is notable that, as Gaylord writes, the
pilgrim is “taken on externals”200 at this moment in the tale sequence.
In a determinately scopic scene, Harry Bailey “looked” on Chaucer
and says the pilgrim “lookest” with downcast eyes, directing him to
“looke up murily.”201 In Chaucer’s failure to return the gaze, the pilgrim
amounts to an optical image, and there is something childlike in the
spectacle: the emphasis on envisaged likeness and smallness, reinforced
by the sense that he is low down and must look up, renders Chaucer a
miniscule, doll-like presence. That he is trapped in this ocular vision
makes him a peculiar artifact of the eye, which has long been under-
stood as engaging in mimicry. The pupilla or opening of the iris is
so-called “for smale ymages ben iseye þerinne, and smale children ben
iclepid pupilli.”202
Yet, while seeming to the Host distinctly toylike, small and simu-
lacral, Chaucer simultaneously remains withdrawn in this scene, as

though there were some profound and inaccessible interiority behind

those looks. Straining against the depersonalization of the figure is the
way the Host continues by describing Chaucer as “elvyssh by his con-
tenaunce.” It is a mystifying statement that has long perplexed critics
precisely in the way elvyssheness should. The pilgrim Chaucer is sup-
posed to stand slightly aloof from the sociable scene he records, “For
unto no wight dooth he daliaunce.”203 Are we to believe that there is
more to Chaucer than the bare materials, mechanics, and techniques
of puppetry suggest? Is there something behind the image?
We could see elvysh and popet as conspiring to conceal some higher
intelligence, some hidden creaturely depths beyond appearances, but
that would be to subscribe to an ever-obliging dualism—the outer ap-
pearance (a passive object) and inner reality (an active and intentional
subject)—running parallel to the familiar distinction between Chaucer’s
puerile literary persona and Chaucer the mature historical person, set-
ting things right on a human track. It would be to reinstall the binaries
animate and inanimate, person and thing, subject and object, and adult
and child that are so unstable in this instance. Yet, ultimately, such a
scheme would underestimate the personality of puppets, dolls, and
other toylike figures and overrate human personhood. It is chastening
in this context to recall Galen’s and Aristotle’s likening of muscles and
limbs to the cords and pins of puppets. Chaucer is only a more extreme
example of an articulated animal body. He is a paradoxical elvissh popet,
thwarting any easy taxonomy. In one sense, his position in the text is
that of any fictional person who possesses reserves of character and
agency into which he can grow. Chaucer anatomizes authorship too: the
authorial persona is a proxy body, a kind of effigy, in fact, that depends
on the functional combination of insentient and inorganic things. I sug-
gest that Chaucer’s self-conceptualization as elvissh popet is indicative
of the way poetry and poets are made and trace connections across a
range of fictive materials and modes. Fiction is, after all, a weird kind
of play-activity whereby inert matters become animated, communica-
tive, and agential—producing lifelike homunculi, possessing themselves
and readers’ imaginations, as if ensouling matter. Ultimately, Chaucer’s
elvissh popet need not be seen as a self-deprecating construction but
rather as a fair description of a certain flickering liveliness and spectrality
that belongs to both human and nonhuman things. Toys teach us that

spectral life can inhere in things. Fiction, too, appropriates nonhuman

devices for humanistic ends. An articulated assemblage, I suggest that
fiction is animistic without appeal to divination—and so deploys a ver-
sion of toy ontology. For reasons yet to be explained, Chaucer broaches
the metafictional topic to make a critical intervention into the status of
his “childish” literary craft.
There is nonetheless also an occult dimension that claims our at-
tention in this context, for the Middle Ages knew numerous stories of
artificial life and mechanical mirabilia associated with necromancy.
Virgil, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Robert Grosseteste were all
supposed to have fabricated statues and human heads that could talk,
which is taken as evidence of their extraordinary book learning.204 The
animation of humanlike figures is often linked to sorcery and alchemy
or, correspondingly in the case of the golem, Jewish Kabbalah. In fact, the
golem is an example of animate vitality arising from textual inscriptions:
by the operation of holy names or characters, a humanoid figure made
of dust comes alive. Letters make limbs move. Chaucer, through a long
chain of associations in his works, allies the elvissh to the mesmerizing
powers of the verbal, magical, alchemical, and thaumaturgical, forging
close connections between the phantasms of poetry and necromancy.
Chaucer meditates often on the poet’s responsibility as an illusionist.
In the Franklin’s Tale, the Clerk of Orléans, with his book-lined study,
appears to be a surrogate for the poet, and the “elvysshe craft” and “elvys-
she nyce lore” of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale have long evoked a set of
relevant analogies between creative endeavors.205 Of course, compari-
sons to the paranormal and to pseudo-scientific pursuits are considered
suspect, and that is the point: Chaucer shifts attention from esoteric arts
to artificiality. Chaucer condemns alchemy as a fraudulent science that
makes the practitioner seem wise, counterfeiting actual intelligence.
The business is shady because it aspires to something more substan-
tive than legend and lore. But what if the contrivance is a sufficiently
wondrous transformation? How sensational is the mere appearance
of intelligence, sentience, subjecthood? A puppeteer and poet aim no
higher, employing verbal and visual sleights for effect. Chaucer declares
alchemical process empty all the better to appropriate its fictions and
fabrications. Simply put, the poet’s elvysshe craft transmutes base object
matter into subject matter. Alchemy is a kind of literary pursuit already,

and arguably Chaucer is just extending the range of the art beyond
humorless esotericism.206 Fiction becomes the only true process by
which to concoct an elixir of life because it is admittedly false and fab-
ricated. No appeal to the hermetic arts is needed to explain the conju-
rations of literature. The mundane formal and material conditions of
play, and poetry, are enough.207


From the Prologue, the reader progresses to the Tale of Sir Thopas,
Chaucer’s very own story about what appears to be a toy knight. Lee
Patterson, among others, sees in the arch theatricality of the tale the
childish make-believe of a “boy dressing up as a knight.”208 Ann Haskell
thinks the knight is best imagined as a popet controlled by a pilgrim, who
is in turn under the governance of a master puppeteer.209 In any case,
Chaucer’s tale is contrived in ways that evoke experiences associated with
toys, puppetry, and child’s play, and I want to extend the analysis. But
because we are not dealing with a three-dimensional physical object but
a literary representation of one, there is a telling difference: for Chaucer,
the text is toy or trinket. It is a “deyntee thyng” that is so minimized
as to seem the verbal plaything of the author.210 Such a reduction of
romance is a strange phenomenon: the narrow confines of a miniature
object stand in contrast to romance’s wide geographic expanses, massive
edifices, dilatory descriptions, gigantomachy. This is partly why readers
experience the text as implausible, meager, mechanical, and ultimately
facetious. Chaucer’s is a frivolous text of the sort writers in the English
Renaissance would condemn as a “foolish toy” or “fairy toy,” when such
phrases were commonly used.
And yet the connection between romance texts and toys, mechani-
cal gimmickry, and technological marvels is fairly well established.
Medieval romances are strewn with toylike novelties and technical
devices, some of them presaging Sir Thopas. On the basis of the evi-
dence of the French corpus, Truitt argues that writers who described
products of mechanical and artisanal labor were reflecting on their
own: “The authors of the romances seem to be demonstrating a self-
conscious preoccupation with the art and act of writing poetry. Not only
were they engaged in manufacture, they were also engaging in mimetic

representation, albeit in words rather than images.”211 A similar point

may be made about the way Chaucer, having become a romance min-
iaturist and materialist, approaches his literary art as a mechanical yet
aesthetic undertaking. It is the issue of aesthetic creation he explored by
way of a mechanical horse in Chaucer Squire’s Tale, as Ingham elucidates
in her account of the “ambition of gadgets” in that romance.212 The poet
has engineered a similar kind of problem in Sir Thopas, but by retooling
romance as farce.
As a textual artifact, Chaucer’s Thopas shows him clearly engaging
in playful reduction and destruction: the tale is a “tail-rhyme romance
only in miniature” with oddly truncated stanzas.213 It is also broken off
prematurely. Most important, Sir Thopas is himself a petite, doll-like
creature inhabiting a dwindling fictional environment, and in a some-
what makeshift and malfunctioning manner. We get the sense that
Chaucer is playing with this figment as he imagines a child would, not
perfectly but with a relish for what can be made out of random things
that are to hand. He is like Thopas himself, stopping the action for
some “game and glee” in a narrative pursuit to slay a “geaunt with he-
vedes three [three heads].”214 Most notably, the knight has “sydes smale,”
and they are made up to seem expressly artifactual and mechanical, as
though Thopas were the sum of his moving parts and material props.215
When he rides on adventure, Sir Thopas encounters among the wild
beasts the hardly terrifying “bukke and hare,” that is, deer and rabbits,
and he goes not through any forbidding forest but what appears to be
a backyard garden: “Ther spryngen herbes grete and smale.”216 And as
Haskell observes, the knight’s complexion and beard are compared not
so much to colored things as to coloring agents: “lyk scarlet in grayn”
and “lyk saffoun” are references to dyestuffs.217 The knight’s painted-on
appearance and meager frame feminize and infantilize him (as Chaucer
had been in the prelude).218 By means of such conceits, Chaucer cuts the
figure down to size, putting him safely beyond the reach of any danger-
ous romance eroticism.219 The knight’s libidinal energies are reduced to
spare him gigantic dangers, as one might expect in children’s literature.
Other features conspire to make him into a constructed, crafted, and
cosmetic object. The repeated figure of speech (“lyk . . . lyk . . .”) under-
lines the way in which Chaucer, employing conspicuous literary craft,
works up a small-scale simulacrum of a knight-errant. He is even a

lapidary thing drawn from the earth and possessing a reflective surface
(topaz), representing a gem specifically known for inverting the images
it reproduces.220 The way Thopas “pryked as he were wood” over the
pleasant scene is likewise indicative: the phrase may refer not just to
overzealous horsemanship and whatever else is conjured by innuendo
(“pryked”) but also to the substance and structure of a toy horseman.221
The cypress spear, charmingly, is made of a “wood not known for its
strength.”222 Thopas is missing sword and spurs, reminiscent of the way
toys tend to break or fragment. Moreover, the wooden way he pricks
his horse overmuch and rapidly is quite like the peculiar locomotion of
a miniature replica. Instead of galloping, Thopas “glood,” as if gliding
through air.223 The rapidity of his movements is comical and puppet-
like.224 The repetition of “priketh” also suggests the amplification of what
should have been a small thing (a mere prike) even as it indicates speeds
and sexual energies disproportionate to the thing supposedly spurred
forward (a real mount), evoking the kinetics of scale thereby. Add to
this the fact that the horse suffers in a way that readers are meant to
imagine actually grasping by hand: “His faire steede in his prikynge / So
swatte [sweat] that men myghte him wrynge.”225 The fanciful notion of
expressing fluid from the horse just as a child might wring out a cloth
doll or stuffed animal further miniaturizes and materializes the imita-
tion world of Sir Thopas. It renders this horseman like Chaucer in the
Prologue—handleable. Miniaturization results in the objectification of
the subject.
Sir Thopas is a toylike contrivance, and his world is off-kilter in
the way one expects of children’s miniature fantasies, where various
resources are appropriated in play. In the catachresis of play, whatever
household items are to hand are serviceable for the child. The idea is well
illustrated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of a boy who “accepts
the clumsiest substitutes and can swallow the most staring incongrui-
ties. The chair he has just been besieging as a castle, or valiantly cutting
to the ground as a dragon, is taken away for the accommodation of a
morning visitor, and he is nothing abashed.”226 Chaucer indeed seems to
put undue weight on quotidian items and their conversions throughout
the tale, and readers regularly note the several unromantic reminders
of everyday urban life and commerce, notably in the description of
Thopas’s silken gown that “coste many a jane”227 and in references to

ale, bread, and kitchen spices. The tale contains what we might now
think of as a blight of “product placements,” with allusions to Cordovan
leather, Flemish hosiery, and Jewish armory, among other things, that
threaten to ruin the illusion or mystique of chivalry. Chaucer invokes
many such things that appear nowhere else in the Canterbury Tales.228
In another context, rewel boon, syklatoun, saffroun, and other imported
spices might have represented exotic items proper to romance (as in Guy
of Warwick, Otuel and Roland, or Seven Sages of Rome), but here they
only entrench the tale within the marketplace, making the tale a kind
of virtual emporium. Chaucer’s knight is made to hail from Popering
in Flanders too, “an unlikely home for a knight but perfectly natural
for a tradesman.”229 He seems not so much a heroic individual as an
assemblage, caught up in flows of craftwork and commodity exchange.
An awareness of the sheer availability of retail items works against any
sense that Thopas might come from a remote and romantic time or
place. Chaucer’s situating the tale “in Flaundres, al biyonde the see” is
key to the constricting effect, the geographical locale depriving the text
of any epic ambitions, as David Wallace shows.230 Also, Popering would
be an ideal hometown for a popet.
Thopas’s origins and accoutrements make him at best an imitation
knight, something that gets reinforced in the arming scene. Brewer
has tracked ancient and medieval arming conventions to show that
Chaucer “effectively destroys this tradition in English”231 and shows
that, in Thopas, Chaucer’s description is plainly askew. His “shield of
gold, so soft and heavy; the leathern, not steel, greaves; the sword-
sheath of ivory yet no sword mentioned; the helmet of the cheap soft
metal, latten,” all impart the distinct impression that Thopas is being
“mocked.”232 The accumulation of small and sundry items does not
add up to a large military presence; the rhetoric is again rather like
that of an inventory of an artisanal workshop or market stall. Perhaps
Thopas is like a fancy toy or trinket one could find in such a place, sold
to middle-class consumers. Certainly the materials are better suited to
a stylized figurine or statuette than to a flesh-and-blood warrior. Sir
Thopas is a tangible imitation. His plate armor “yroght of Jewes werk”
only heightens the sense that the knight is a finely crafted miniature
object, for if the knight’s outfit is anything like the ornamental craftwork
for which continental Jews were known, it would be more decorative

than protective.233 The potential delicacy of the armor makes him more
dainty doll than “doghty swayn.”234
As for the last piece of evidence, Sir Thopas’s arming has implica-
tions that go far beyond mere physical scale or soundness when situ-
ated within the larger context of Fragment VII of the Canterbury Tales.
The previous tale of the Prioress is a fairly conventional miracle story,
and although not all of them were so overtly xenophobic, hers exhibits
a common hostility toward the Jews.235 Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas
tries hard to be equally conventional in its way, and it may seem com-
plicit with the Prioress’s anti-Jewish rhetoric.236 A shared emphasis on
charming smallness is striking. The Prioress’s “litel clergeon” attends a
“litel scole” where he acquires “litel book lernynge” and “smal gram-
meere,” all of which is intended to confirm the child’s exquisite moral
innocence.237 The innocent “Child Thopas”238 exhibits a different set of
limitations and literal understandings, related to erotic and chivalric
deeds rather than to piety. The Prioress could stand in as an awkward
but serviceable romance heroine too: no fairy queen, she is, like Thopas,
as ill suited to the generic context in which she is placed. But if Chaucer
has extended some features of her tale, he also puts pressure on them
in the relations established between tales in the sequence, and he does
this by emphasizing scale and substance. Chaucer’s tale is evacuated of
sentimentality and exotic thrill adequate to the promised adventure,
and this failure rebounds on both tales as products of literary labor. The
offhand remark about “Jewes werk” now seems to default to an automatic
stereotype and is of a piece with the mindless, diminutive devotion of
the Prioress. Furthermore, any reference to mainland Jewry is liable to
recall how the Jewish population was driven out of England into the
Low Countries after the Expulsion of 1290 (where, in Flanders, Jews
were subsequently massacred and exiled in 1370). It is an epic historical
narrative that shadows any little stories Chaucer might tell.
The tales both of the Prioress and of Chaucer contain many clichéd
textual elements, fossilized forms, stock figures, polarized rhetoric, and
an almost automatic emplotment. Yet Chaucer makes clear that he is
fiddling with the mechanisms and materials, nowhere more so than in
the Tale of Sir Thopas, which, as its sources and analogues show, “is
not really a tale at all, but is instead a hodgepodge of common rhetori-
cal devices and popular plot motifs.”239 The crude and recombinatory

bricolage fails, and that failure has been taken to be a droll comment
on the “lifelessness of an obsolescent literary type.”240 Actually, the
tale elucidates the way romance is at its best always a well-oiled ma-
chine, devices set on tracks, modules fitted together: romance texts are
modular devices and mechanisms geared toward producing specific
effects. Chaucer’s treatment anticipates Auerbach’s influential analysis
of romance as fine-tuned machinery that produces programmed results
(“a world specifically created and designed to give the knight the op-
portunity to prove himself ”).241 Thopas is only a hysterical example, all
the more abstract and formulaic because decidedly small and artificial.242
Chaucer’s text refuses to absorb the reader in what Heidegger calls the
referential totality of equipment. The equipment is in a state of disrepair,
all unready and present-to-hand rather than useable and ready-to-
hand (assigned a clear reference or purpose).243 Thopas is the unready
knight, as indicated by the military equipment he bears but also by the
puny physical world he inhabits. That he will pursue an “elf-queene”244
seems entirely fitting for someone so objectified and inhuman (wooden,
metallic, lapidary, breadlike, etc.), embodying a quest for enchantment
and fuller sentience and subjecthood. Yet these aims are not achieved.
Ultimately, the diminished, asexual, and improbable adventure leads
nowhere. The knight can be compared to the “automata-like body,”
that wondrously animated singing corpse of the Prioress’s Tale, which
would also seem toylike if it were not so terrible.245 The perishing body
of the boy is indeed like a marionette (a diminutive “little Mary”), a
thing virtually under the command of a transcendent mediatrix, the
Virgin. Sir Thopas is a rather more risible, jerry-built spectacle. At best
he evokes something like the amusing automata of the Wells Cathedral
Clock (circa 1390), whose miniature jousting knights emerge to spar
with each other on the hour. Only the time, never the scene, changes.
Except in Chaucer’s narrative, where all the essential technical elements
have been arranged (steed, steel, giant, love object), the story does not
run like clockwork.
No smooth operator, Thopas is only technically a knight, but
then so is every knight, as we noted earlier. In the present case, the
emphasis on craft, commodities, and commerce produces an over-
worked text, but such frivolous tinkering is, I believe, only a ground-
clearing exercise, expressing Chaucer’s deep regard for the kind of life

a composition can possess when well made. It is the lifelikeness a popet

can achieve. Here, in a botched romance, we discover Chaucer’s genuine
commitments.246 Patterson, too, sees Thopas as limning, “in diminutive
and parodic form, attributes and values that are central to the ‘comedye’
of the Canterbury Tales.”247 The Tale of Sir Thopas exhibits “a heavy
Chaucerian investment in the power of the fictive, the fantastic, and
the wish-fulfilling—the power, that is, of the ‘elvysshe.’”248 But alongside
the elvyssh again, there is an equally heavy investment in puerility and
playfulness. Chaucer’s “authorial childishness”249 stands out. In some
ways it recalls the way Dante conceives of himself as embryonic and then
infantile in the Commedia, capitalizing on the “long-distance rhyming”
of Dante and fante. Dante is thinking through what it means to be a
visionary writer, implying that “the origins of the body correlate with
the origins of poetry.”250
Closer to home, Thomas Usk adopts a somewhat impish authorial
stance as a suckling. In such examples, creative activity can be situated
in relation to a long-standing philosophical discourse that lauds a spe-
cific kind of immature rhetoric or artificiality. In the words of William
of Conches, poets are “children’s nurseries.” They feed the mind with
easily digestible liquid foods.251 Writing like a child also means playing
with things as things, remaining at the elementary level of surfaces
and shapes, becoming absorbed with adornments and toys, trinkets
and disguises, and sensibilia. Just so, Usk’s Testament of Love consists
of a heap of small and toylike devices: the pearl, shell, prison, key, knot,
mirror, crumbs, tree, breast, Tree of Love, and Ship of Travail. They are
artifacts of an inherited textual tradition, including Chaucer’s Troilus
and Criseyde, Marguerite poetry, and possibly Dante. His text becomes a
miscellaneous, idiosyncratic collection, a volume of so many assembled
things—a rhetorical Wunderkammer.252 His favorite rhetorical trope is
catachresis (abusio), which, as we have noted, is a defining feature of
sensible enjoyment, a kind of toying with. It is notable that Usk self-
deprecatingly miniaturizes himself even as he seeks moral seriousness,
anticipating that some will “laughe to here a dwarfe or els halfe a man”
who dares claim “he wyl rende out the swerde of Hercules handes.”253
He is far too meager a man, almost another Sir Thopas.
Chaucer adopts a similar guise, following the Prioress’s infantile
performance and leading up to the more mature matters of the Tale of

Melibee. The latter playfully feigns to be a “litel thyng in prose”254 and

has been thought to be an early form of English children’s literature,
no matter that it seeks to instantiate a proper order within the house-
hold, as if setting right what was in excess in Thopas. A less prejudicial
reading of Thopas would see Chaucer mapping out what he takes to
be indispensable to imaginative literature, where surfaces as much as
depths, objects as much as subjects, and skillful craft and beautiful or-
namentation constitute the very weave of existence. Fiction is aligned
both with the elvysshe (insubstantial fancies) and the popet (substantial
mechanisms and objects)—suggesting that there is finally no choice be-
tween them. As artless as it is, the Tale of Sir Thopas reveals most keenly
how matters must be handled—prudently, let us say, in anticipation of
the allegory that follows in the Tale of Melibee—lest it become disrup-
tive, producing upward pressures on literary composition. In Chaucer’s
hands, the result is no finished hylomorphic composition but rather an
undermined or broken literary object—broken, in the precise sense of
analytic, compelling readers ever after to attend to literariness itself.
In Sir Thopas, Chaucer is toying with fiction, if not with the very facts
of livable existence, indulging in a childlike folly, exposing the realism
inherent in make-believe.
If Chaucer uncovers something like the empirical or at least prag-
matic grounds of the literary, then perhaps other textual practices need
to be reconsidered for what they indicate about their material conditions.
Lingual objects of other kinds are possibly also objectival in a strong
sense, or interobjective rather than merely intersubjective creations, and
belong to a longer chain of reference that includes things, not just people
making things. That is the direction the next essay takes in an attempt
to think about how different literary genres embrace and even embody
antecedent and messy material traces, mashing up word and world. What
if texts are sometimes the very means by which things outside present
and propagate themselves? How does a text read differently, then? My
wager is that it is sometimes practical, even indispensable, to treat liter-
ary matters as if they were generative, collective, and object oriented.
This page intentionally left blank
The Mess

Tables can appear to be no more than convenient, receptive household

objects, entirely correlated to human use. Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s
On the Properties of Things, translated into Middle English by John
Trevisa late in the 1390s, offers a relevant generic definition: “A borde
hatte [is called] tabula and hath þat name of teneo, tenes ‘to holde.’” In
the practical manner of everyday things, tables carry different senses
and sentiments depending on context. They are like so many empty
placeholders. So we go on to read: “tabula is in oon significacioun a mete
bord and nameliche of riche men, as it were tenebula ‘holdynge mor-
sellis,’ for þey holdeþ morsellis and vessellis þat ben sette þerupon, and
is arrered [raised] and sette upon feete and yclipped wiþ a lyste aboute
[surrounded by a border].” Other significations include the game board,
writing tablet, and building materials, but in any case, all of these things
are liable to be seen as accommodating and impressionable surfaces or
slabs that uphold the culture.1 A writing tablet is not the only board
rendered a tabula rasa on this fairly commonsensical understanding,
obtaining value when assigned social forms and functions. Relatively
featureless and tractable, a given table is ready to be covered, arranged,
filled, imprinted, and occupied, fully absorbed within a social milieu.
The thing exists in what is often perceived to be a state of indetermina-
tion that is eminently useful. On that view, a table is nothing if not an
index of human practices and norms, becoming a table in a further sense
(concordance, register, list), which is to say an encyclopedic tabulation.
It would seem to be a discursive object.


It is easy enough to identify such things as tables with human con-

ceits and the culture at large, just as we may see toys as vessels of ide-
ology or poems as vehicles of ideas. Any object is readily construed
as the bearer of social signs or schemes, and none so easily as crafted
objects deliberately made for commerce and consumption. But while
the assigned significaciouns must remain part of any analysis of tables,
we must avoid rendering them into vacant and passive receptacles, as
though they do not have or express other designs. It would be a mis-
take to think that, because such household goods do not obtain value
naturally, they are wholly artifacts of culture, ideology, or language. To
treat objects of any kind in this way is to forget about their affordances,
as we discussed earlier in this book. Objects lend themselves to differ-
ent uses. If a table is called “tabula and hath þat name of teneo, tenes ‘to
holde,’” it is because such a thing is not actually a simple placeholder,
empty until filled, but an object that actively holds others in place, and
may exhibit a certain kind of tenacity in doing so. Things are not just
immaterial effects; they are effective materials that join up with others
in the collective. Things are not just consumed but produce and repro-
duce the conditions in which consumption happens. Objects themselves
may assist or resist subjects; some practically enlist subjects, it seems,
to carry out their plans. It is almost as if objects have their objects. In
virtue of such radiant energies, we must, and do, routinely ask, what
are the physical capabilities, tendencies, or tolerances of a thing? How
does it work? Broadly speaking, if the attributed content of the table is
contingent on historical forms of life, those same cultural formations
are contingent on lively materials. Graham Harman’s description of how
the table tends to be treated is apropos:

Everyone wants to demolish the object, as if it were some naïve

remainder that no philosopher could allow on earth unchallenged.
On one side the object dissolves downward into its physical sub-
components, so that what we call a “table” is just a set of subatomic
particles or an underlying mathematical structure. This strategy
can be called undermining. On the other side the object can be
dissolved upward into its effects on human consciousness, so that
what we call a “table” is nothing in its own right, but only a func-
tional table-effect for someone or a table-event for other entities.
By analogy, I have called this strategy “overmining.”2

As we will see, there is a long philosophical tradition of treating the

table as an exemplary theoretical object, but part of Harman’s point is
that the table remains itself despite all theorizing. It is reducible nei-
ther to epiphenomenon nor to human event. However much we may
desire thick descriptions of the cultural biography of things, objects do
not evaporate into some ethereal social imaginary. Yet even sticking
to the level of phenomenal effects and events, the point is instructive,
allowing us a better view of the way substances substantiate cultural
forms, in which case anthropocentric views of what counts as sociable
or significant cannot be sustained. This is still going to sound rather
more “relational” and “interactive” than Harman would prefer, at least
at the metaphysical level, where he is inquiring into the thing itself,
but new possibilities are put on the table once we join him in the com-
mitment to avoid simply undermining or overmining. He, too, argues
that objects emit partial qualities even while remaining apart from all
interactions, and I will return to the idea of the object as causal nexus
later. The following discussion will move between Harman-like solid
objects (emphasizing their integrity and individuation apart from all
interactions) and Latour-like temporary assemblages (emphasizing
relations, interactions, and translations) but will be grounded in any
case in a realism that does not dematerialize or demolish the object in
relation to human becomings.
On the Properties of Things knows as much about the objects de-
scribed: for while the encyclopedia may at first seem to come to rest in
abstractions without inquiring further into palpable matters, even the
brief entry concedes agency and vitality to material things, demonstrat-
ing where—if not quite how through their own talents—they insinuate
themselves into multiple spheres of human activity. A tabula is versatile,
adaptable, and serviceable in the construction of houses, ships, bridges,
furniture, and encyclopedias. It would be hard to exaggerate the degree
to which medieval culture is composed of dense networks of tabulae
in all forms organizing and determining human means and ends. Such
things provide windows onto the way such seemingly incommensurable
matters (human, nonhuman, individual, and collective) are conjoined
and co-implicated. Consider the associations: forestry, tools, know-how,
guilds, transport, markets, buildings, households, bylaws, and local
governments and trade networks. All owe something to the specificity
of woodland ecologies and the biomass flowing from them. Forestry

is a human activity that affects the environment and in turn becomes

entangled in and environed by real forests, devoted to tracking new and
old growth, rotating planting and coppicing, and determining what is
feasible given local conditions. The extracted timber possesses textures
and temperaments that must be accounted for by subsequent human
industry and trade, shaping what it is possible for numerous crafts—
millwrights, joiners, engineers, building carpenters, shipwrights—to
accomplish with the nonhuman stuff. Given the orientation of wood
fibers, sawing and planing against the grain results in burns, splinters,
and a rough finish. Wood, not fusible like metals, requires expert joinery
(e.g., dovetailing or mortise-and-tenon joints) and specialized mold-
ing techniques (e.g., by training a live sapling or applying wet heat).
Woodworkers learn how to work along with, not just through, ligneous
matter.3 A finished wooden table likewise lends itself to specific acts
and associations in the household. A rectangular table puts guests in a
different relation than does a round one; a temporary trestle table and
a fixed table have different advantages; even a plain table attracts dif-
ferent attention than one with elaborate tracery.4 I begin with such bald
generalizations to say that things make their presence felt on assembled
bodies and that agency and affectivity are distributed among a great array
of things, which ought to challenge the human narcissism of thinking
we ever just do as we please. At diverse scales, vast ecologies and mate-
rial assemblages incorporate those who are nearby and far away and
mobilize them all to ends they could not have chosen independently.
History depends on the stirrings of sundry agents, and the consequences
of joining forces with them tend to proliferate over time. One end for
the sake of which wood products are fabricated may seem clear and
deliberate enough (namely, human comfort and commerce), but there
are many intermediate ends. Following Hannah Arendt, we can observe
that there is a chain of causation—“the end justifies the violence done to
nature to win the material, as the wood justifies killing the tree and the
table justifies destroying the wood”5—all of which results in a diversity
of situated activities. While she looks on the concatenation of causes
with some apprehension, observing that everything is subordinate to
“man the user and instrumentalizer,” a broader view of action suggests
that homo faber does not own all the means. The human is means to
ends partially determined by objective conditions. And objects may have

surprises in store. Taking the dining table as one powerful agent among
others, I will reflect further on the material prospects of the commensal
situation in and through literary history. In particular, I will return to a
body of household texts that seek to nurture the child at table.
The banqueting table has been a major stimulus to ancient and me-
dieval textual traditions, motivating everything from classical symposia
(e.g., Plutarch’s Quaestiones convivales defends table talk following the
ancient examples of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus) and arts of rhetoric
(e.g., Cicero’s De oratore tells how Simonides invented mnemotechnics
after participating in an ill-fated dinner party) to the philosophical feasts
of Macrobius’s Saturnalia and Dante’s Convivio. Their main courses are
conspicuous consumption, camaraderie, disputation, hyperbolic displays
of verbal wit and wisdom. Tables themselves have been counted among
the most important monuments to the past, as indicated in La Queste
del Saint Graal: “You know well that since the coming of Jesus Christ
there have been three great tables in the world,” the dining table of
Jesus Christ, the table of the Holy Grail, and the Round Table.6 Bakhtin
revealed the extent to which classical and medieval texts rely on festive
imagery, leveraging the power of banquet scenes to excite speech and
add zest to literary experience (producing what he calls the “grotesque
symposium”), and others have explored the gusto with which medieval
writers exploit eating and dining conventions.7 But troping the table is
one thing. The literature of manners and meals exposes the immediate
presence and persistence of the table and associated trappings that fall
under the rubric (utensils, service, manners, and diet), exposing the
tenacity of objects within household habitats. A commensal scene is
described in detail in Bartholomaeus’s encyclopedia, and I quote a long
passage to recall the whole articulated assemblage:

Mete and drinke han ordenaunce and respecte to [are provisioned

in respect of] meteschipe and to feestis, for in meteschipe first
mete is igreyþid [provided] and arrayed, gestis beþ iclepid togedres
[are invited], formes and stoles beþ isett in þe halle, and mete
bordis, cloþ, and towailes ben i-ordeyned, disposed, and ihiȝt
[prepared]. Gestis ben isette wiþ þe lord in þe chief place of the
borde, and sittiþ nouȝt at þe bord or [before] gestis wassche here
hondes. Children beþ iset in here place [at borde, and mayny in

here place]. First spones, knyves, and salars [cellars] beþ isette on
þe bord, and þanne brede and drinke and many divers messes.
Meinals and servantis bisilich helpen and folewin iche oþir, and
talken miriliche ifere [among themselves]. Þe gestis beþ igladid
wiþ fithelis and harpis [musical instruments]. Now wyn and now
messes [dishes] beþ ibrouȝt forþ and departid [distributed]. At
þe laste comeþ fruit and spices, and whanne þey haveþ i-ete bord
cloþis [tablecloths] and relif [leftover food] beþ ibore awey, and
mete bordis beþ ibore awey, and eft [after] hondes iwassche and
wipid. Þanne graces beþ iseide and gestis þankeþ þe lord. Þanne
for gladnesse and comfort drinke comeþ eft and eft. Whenne al þis
is idoo at mete and aftir, þanne men takeþ here leve and somme
gooþ to bedde and slepiþ, and somme gooþ home to here owne.8

Bartholomaeus goes on to describe how the meal must be held at a

convenient time and place, diners should be of good cheer and compan-
ionable, there should be many courses to appeal to different appetites,
servants should be courteous and honest, and music and good lighting
are required, among other things. In what follows, “the table” will be-
come shorthand for a large set of closely allied materials and manners,
the preparations for which are immense and begin with the training of
children (where, as Bartholomaeus writes, “Children beþ iset in here
place”). I will ruminate on the production of such festive ensembles
and the gravitational pull of the table as manifest in instructional hand-
books—medieval recipe collections, dietary writings, and conduct and
regiminal manuals for the young—as well as in contemporary domestic
satire, chivalric romance, and personification allegory. I am interested
in tracking some of the ways the literature of the household takes di-
rections from the materiality and minutiae of the dining table, placing
physical bodies, including bodies of writing, in relation to them. All such
works provide glimpses of the material elaborations of culture, where
diverse properties and practices substantiate the social—and furnish
the human (see Plate 10).
Texts, like tables, are fine gathering places. As we will see, the table
enters into diverse practical texts in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century
works of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and John Russell. Showing
what can seem an inordinate fascination with the material medium,

their texts are replete with references to a messy commensality, and

both Lydgate and Russell composed works that are like user’s guides
to the table. Lydgate is credited with dietary advice (e.g., “Dietary,” “A
Doctrine for Pestilence,” “Nine Properties of Wine”); a short discourse on
table manners for boys (Stans Puer ad Mensam); directions for choosing
flesh, fish, waters, and wines (in a version of Secreta Secretorum); and a
contribution to the coronation banquet of Henry VI (“Soteltes,” which
refers to edible concoctions accompanied by verse). Russell was onetime
marshal to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who, as it happens, was uncle
of Henry VI and one of Lydgate’s most important patrons. Russell’s
literary endeavors were limited to The Boke of Nurture, essentially a
primer for the aspiring butler, panter, and carver, containing information
about how to dress the table and arrange guests; pick the appropriate
aperitifs and digestives; plan the menu; hold and handle utensils; and
carve and serve meats. These works join several other fifteenth-century
instructional texts, including The Babees Book and The Book of Curtesy,
which teach the young how to comport themselves at table. Domestic
concerns infiltrate imaginative fictions, too, most notably Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman, two of the examples with
which I will end. All such works provide glimpses into the reciprocal
relation between commensal and literary matters, inviting us to read
tables within texts not simply as metaphors or objective correlatives.
Attending to the affiliations, I instead experiment with the notion that
texts and tables are material extensions or elaborations of one another
(“table talk”). The table is indeed a complex mess, reaching back to some
of the original senses of the term.9
The conclusion toward which I am building, then, is that practical
writings consist of after-the-fact textual traces of the “nature” and “cul-
ture” they try to capture and convert into technical and instructional
discourses for youth. Imaginative literature assimilates tables to more
sophisticated narrative ends, aestheticizing the festive occasion (which
is to say, rendering the sensual all the more sensational), and therefore
retains a kind of matter-of-factness about the materials on which it
depends. From this vantage, the foodways and furniture of the past are
conditions of possibility not just of the living organisms but also of liter-
ary production (not just of the human but of the humanities, as we will
see in some distinguished cases where the table is turned to advantage),

requiring that we return to the troping of the table with a fresh perspec-
tive on how text and table communicate. Both things are translatable in
the root sense of carrying matter across from place to place, and indeed,
I want to say that tables proceed to matter in more than one site. The
figurative feast is on a far side of a continuum with real ones. Allegory is
gastronomy reformatted. Tables occasion household writing and write
themselves into the historical and literary record, maneuvering into place
there by means of successive inscriptions, manifesting aesthetic objects.
Something similar can be said about other didactic and dietetic works
for children, who are themselves to mature into the kind of subjects
who appreciate those objects.
To apprehend the ongoing circulation of these matters—the feed
system of medieval meals and manners that extends from tables to texts
and back again—is to come to terms not just with physical elements but
also with the relevant social, political, and literary associations. Here
the table is liable to serve the most anthropocentric projects. Social
historians have already demonstrated the ways in which what happens
in kitchens and dining tables, within great households and cottages
alike, tends to produce and reproduce dominant cultural forms in the
Middle Ages: a table is the place where kinship bonds are forged and
maintained; the arrangement of guests recapitulates the social hierarchy;
courtesy and sumptuary codes take root; patterns of food consump-
tion distinguish men from women, the nobility from the lesser estates,
countrymen from foreigners, humans from animals and monstrous
races, and Christians from Jews and heretics.10 Penetrating analyses of
household texts in particular have shown how central the human is to the
mess, beginning with Norbert Elias’s argument that conduct literature
facilitated the “civilizing process” in Western Europe. In Elias’s analysis
of Erasmus’s conduct book De civilitate morum puerilium, the cultivated
dinner guest transcends all that is animal, primitive, or peasantlike.11
Dining etiquette is a “recipe for success.” Such texts set up the minutest
restrictions on children’s deportment, endorsing the refined habits of a
superior, disciplined subject who on this account supposedly overcomes
medieval barbarism. Early modern precepts of polite behavior gener-
ate a “compulsion to check one’s own behaviour,”12 and for Elias, such
heightened self-consciousness directly subtends the development of the
autonomous subject in postindustrial civilizations. Humanism triumphs

over the longue durée, generating the modern subject (a homo clausus
or “closed personality”), who is a self-sovereign and spontaneous actor.
In this tale of progress, human individuation is the end point. More
recent scholarship has added much-needed nuance to Elias’s picture,
offering subtle readings of earlier practical manuals to show how they
nurture humanity. Claire Sponsler shows how medieval conduct books
“school their readers in a self-created subjectivity, encouraging them to
participate in their own construction as well-governed subjects,” and she
mines Lydgate’s “Dietary” for what it suggests about the commodifica-
tion of conduct and the bourgeois subject’s cultivation of self-mastery.13
Stephanie Trigg describes the strategies contemporary conduct manuals
provide to the self-in-training.14 There is likewise much to take into
consideration about the gender politics and social striving implied by the
rise of conduct literature in later medieval England. As Mark Addison
Amos, Anna Dronzek, Lynn Staley, and Myra Seaman all demonstrate,
household literature is oriented toward enhancing the authority of the
paterfamilias who wishes to improve himself and regulate inferiors
(children, women, and household retainers).15 If these scholars tend to
privilege human economy, hierarchy, and sovereignty, they do so for
good reason: the domestic sphere is manifestly ordered to androcentric
ends. Yet the same scholars recognize the multiple negotiations it takes
to maintain human control over a messy reality—for indeed, the asser-
tiveness of didactic texts is a measure of the fragility of the masculine
hegemony they endorse.16 The relations that obtain between subjects and
objects are equally fraught, though they have so far received little treat-
ment.17 We have learned much about how humans conduct themselves
and perpetuate and institutionalize hegemonic norms at table, but I want
to pursue the idea that the material and messy ensemble conducts the
human there in the first place, incorporating various bodies in a non-
human medium, thwarting the hegemony of individuals and institutions
to the extent that so may other things (objects and organisms) must be
relied on to propagate hierarchy and sovereignty. Trigg has gone farthest
in this direction by noting the capacity for manifold objects to disrupt
order: “The possibilities for social decorum to go astray seem endless,
at every level of gesture, discourse, and comportment of the body.” 18
Moreover, Sponsler’s emphasis on the way conduct texts ground human
identity in imitation (acquired nurture rather than inherited nature),

facilitating class mobility by means of learned behavior, shows up the

extent to which the literature is one of becoming over being.19
My aim here is to suggest that the issue is systemic: personal desire
and decorum are betrayed by the very obsession with the impersonal
mess, and, more profoundly, sovereignty is not the best description of
a situation where powers are variously diffused. Moreover, the system
is so extensive and replete (requiring surplus goods, extra labor, lavish
attention, and aesthetic display) as to seem less than strictly justified in
purely economic terms, revealing instead an an-economic and ecologi-
cal substrate to the well-ordered dwelling (oikos). Human propriety, I
hazard to say, is improperly human in this respect. Such is the matter of
the child, and it should resonate with what I have discussed elsewhere
in this book about epigenetic becoming, playing, sensing, and crafting.
Household texts disperse action within a flattened topological field,
favor multiplicity and mobility over identity and fixity, and saturate
human subjects in a messy objective materiality even as they urge self-
composure and cleanliness. All of this heterogeneity is expressed within
hierarchies even when they are meant to be most stratified, because to
stratify is one way to draw together various people and things. Becoming
consumed with the mess, a mannered child effectively becomes co-
extensive with the foodstuffs and various phenomena of tableware, table
manners, and talk. Food practices may indeed turn the tables on the
sovereign individual by exposing being to volatile becoming. Ultimately,
the table can be a “recipe for disaster.” My aim is to explore the ontologi-
cal priority of things, testing what happens when humans are the belated
element in the assemblage called “Early English Meals and Manners.”


The carpentered table has long obsessed writers who theorize materiality
and human capability, and such is one example of the way things often
get diffused. The table makes a recurrent appearance in literature, legend,
philosophy, and natural science, where it is however introduced largely
to deny the force of distributed agency and collectivity. A universal
prototype of the designed object, the wood table remains an attractive
model of formation and information not least because they are near
at hand. They regularly furnish the philosophical mind with thoughts

about causality, materiality, craftwork, consumption, and representa-

tion.20 Such intellectualizing goes back at least to the tenth book of
Plato’s Republic, in which the wooden table is given as an example of
unearthly “ideas” imbuing matter with form through the intermediary
of the craftsman; Aristotle in his Physics uses wooden furniture to il-
lustrate his theory of formed matter.
Medieval writers were well aware of the implications. Isidore of
Seville begins his description of a dining table and dining (de mensis)
with a reference to the original mortal demiurge: “Daedalus was the first
to make a table and a chair.”21 Associated with the fabled artisan and
patron of woodwork, the table may at first seem to be endowed with
greater significance than it deserves, at least compared to other famous
daidala, such as his labyrinth, automata, or city on a rock. Isidore is
implying that it takes extraordinary human intelligence to design the
table and chair in the first place. Moreover, because we also know from
Pliny’s Natural History that Daedalus invented carpentry and the hatchet,
plumb line, gimlet, and glue, the designs of the table and chair are pre-
cious gifts to the woodworking craft.22 Any association with Daedalus
is problematic for those versed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who would
recognize that his innovations often ended in disaster (Daedalus was
famously unable to escape his own maze or avoid others’ misapplica-
tion of his inventions), and I will return to consider some tragic pos-
sibilities of the table he invented. Remaining for the moment with the
ideal form of matter, it is probably not a coincidence that carpentered
things are paradigmatic cases of formed matter in Isidore, reinforcing
the association between wooden furniture and Daedalean marvels. “All
wood,” explains Isidore in another place, “is called ‘material’ (materia,
also meaning ‘timber’) because something can be made from it; the term
will be materia whether you apply it to a door or to a statue.”23 Isidore’s
metaphysical aside is matched by something he observes earlier:

The Greeks call the primary material of things ὕλη (‘matter,’ also
‘wood, woodland’), which is not formed in any way, but is capable
of underlying all manner of bodily forms. . . . Latin speakers have
named this ὕλη ‘matter’ (materia, also meaning ‘wood’) because
every unformed substance, of which something is made, is al-
ways called matter. Whence the poets have named it silva (lit.

‘woodland’), not inappropriately, because materia is connected

with woods.24

To recall but one celebrated example from the twelfth century, primor-
dial matter is dubbed Silva by Bernardis Silvestris (who must have felt
some frisson at the coincidence of his very name). Wood is forever
after an archetype of unformed matter, and furniture—specifically the
carpentered table—is an emblem of formed matter and of what humans
can achieve. It was Aristotle who first dubbed matter ὕλη, and, as we
have seen earlier, the hylomorphic theory often held sway in medieval
debates over embryogenesis. Not surprisingly, woodcraft was used in
the context of biology to describe animal reproduction, starting with
Aristotle’s likening of the male seed to the carpenter’s tool that imparts
shape and form on female matter.25 The simile occurs elsewhere, as in
the fourteenth-century De Secretis Mulierum.26 Hylomorphism stays
on the table long after.
Derrida, among others, adopts the classical definition of ὕλη as
“wood of the wooden table” and talks of the “very form that informs” the
wood to make a table a commodity form.27 His conception is modeled
on the “materialist” critique of the wooden table in Marx, a specimen
that cannot be avoided in talking of form today. Writing about the com-
mon wood table in a section on the commodity fetish in Capital, Marx
argues that the piece of furniture starts out as a product of human labor
and exists as simple use-value. When it comes to market, however, the
thing is alienated from material production and acquires exchange-
value. It rises above inanimate materiality to become a “transcendent”
and “mystical” commodity form.28 The conceit of modern commerce
is to make such things appear animate and autonomous, so that the
table now figures as a sociable creature. The aura of capital makes such
things come alive with the ability to astonish and dazzle the senses like
some wooden fetish. In Derrida’s reading of the passage, Marx’s exotic
conjuration of a table “corresponds to an anthropomorphic projection”
whereby something insentient is ascribed a vital spirit.29 The table rises
up on legs and “erects its whole self like an institution.”30 Yet Derrida
supposes that the immaterial, even mystical, effects of commerce are
inherent in the impersonal form of the table. Opposing any absolute
distinction between use-value and exchange-value, Derrida’s point is that

a thing crystallizes value in the first place as formed matter. The “very
form . . . [the table] must indeed have at least promised it to iterability, to
substitution, to exchange, to value; it must have made a start, however
minimal it may have been, on an idealization that permits one to identify
it as the same throughout possible repetitions, and so forth.”31 It does
not take capitalism to subject the table to “market equivalence.” Capital
stands as a specter haunting the table, any table. The table is cashed out
in advance as a made object. Radicalizing the Marxist critique, Derrida
argues that the wooden table is inherently commodifiable, just by virtue
of the form matters are made to assume.
Yet the cost of looking at things from the perspective of overpowering
forms—that is, from the human-centered hylomorphic perspective,
Daedalean or Derridean as the case may be—should now be apparent,
and more recent political theory is indeed critical of the way the com-
modity fetish is figured against a ground of disenchanted modernity.
Fetishized culture is treated as a perversion of some relatively neutral
and plastic nature.32 It would seem a table is an expressive and charis-
matic object only because of human transactions and transvaluations
of things (which is surely a form of Harmanian “overmining”). Things
themselves are never granted much freedom or transformative agency.
Of course, Derrida draws the table away from individual human control
and comes closest to sensing that we are dealing not just with immaterial
effects but also with effective materials. Elsewhere it may seem as though
the theoretical table never had any basis in physical reality and that it
belongs in the ether quite apart from objective things. Best known of all
is Benjamin’s example of the chess table that conceals a “hunchbacked
dwarf,” who acts as an accomplice, controlling a puppet at play on the
surface above. The sham automaton chess master is made into a minimal
allegory of history: “One can envision a corresponding object to this
apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is
always supposed to win.”33 The methodological drawbacks to the way
things materialize here include the fact that it is only by some ruse or
illusion that insentient things appear to be winning. Such “materialisms”
triumph only by installing some powerful forming agent at the center,
however diffused or disguised, paying little heed to the ontology of real
tables, chess pieces, rules of the game, and puppets. Ultimately, such
things are rendered all the more inert and insentient, perhaps not unlike

anesthetized clinical specimens on the operating table in the preface of

Foucault’s Order of Things. Here is another prominent table conjured
up in theory. Foucault talks of the table “in two superimposed senses,”
juxtaposing the material appurtenance of the hospital room (“the nickel-
plated, rubbery table swathed in white, glittering beneath a glass sun
devouring all shadow”) and the ordering function of the encyclopedia
among other kinds of forensic analysis (“a table, a tabula, that enables
thought to operate upon all entities of our world, to put them in order,
to divide them into classes, to group them according to names that
designate their similarities and their differences”).34 Tabulation and
abstract critical analysis are powerful capabilities of human thought,
and they may enter any given assemblage, as I will emphasize later,
but there is little attempt in many formulations to think of the object
beyond a masterful thinking or crafting subject, that is, at the limit of
the correlate of mind and matter.
A guiding assumption so far is that the table comes under the oc-
cult and otherwise omnipotent influence of external agents; things are
always capitalized within human economies, subordinate to marvelous
powers in human history. But then why should such a thing as a table
be so susceptible to the abstraction of value? The assumption is that the
table depends on human institutions. But how does one explain their
routine dependence on tables? One of the strengths of any of the usual
cultural critiques is that they seek to champion the human freedom to
form and reform matters that stand in the way of historical change, but
consider the irony: critique is an anticapitalist move that often replicates
the strategies of capitalism, inadvertently encouraging some of its worst
excesses. The commodity is hardly threatened, for everyone still basically
agrees on a thing’s contingent origins, convertible value, and easy liqui-
dation. Cultural materialism proceeds on assumptions about plasticity
and obsolescence that it everywhere should have eschewed. The ques-
tion for me, then, is not whether tables are “sociable” and “spectral” but
how such things should become powerful presences in themselves—not
because they are possessed but because they are effective mediums.
Though Marx and Derrida, among others, are not wrong to personify
the table as a lively presence, the reasons given for the transmutation
from inanimate thing to animate medium are inadequate.
And so I ask: how exactly are human operations of various kinds

anchored in the full-featured ontology of things? What does a table

bring to the table? The incipient energies and material elements of
things, what Bennett calls “thing-power,” must be added to the list of
what is vital in the collective (epistemic, economic, or otherwise), a
point that can be demonstrated first of all by returning to the anthropo-
morphizing to which the Marxist–Derridean critique has recourse. For
we should have noticed that their monstrous table only appears to rear
up on legs because such things as tables have aspects that we recognize
as legged, something shared out among different things (human and
nonhuman) in the world. A critical anthropomorphism is sometimes
key to understanding the effective thing-powers of nonhuman others.
Humans, strange as it may seem, are not the only anthropomorphic ob-
jects around, and any theory that fails to notice that much will remain
anthropocentric in the extreme—and lack legs to stand on. Theory that
relies on the unique formative powers of human agents to explain the
constitution of nonhuman things treats them as passive elements, inac-
tive ingredients, raw materials. That was already at stake in Heidegger’s
analysis of the “standing reserve,” when he observed that wood hewed
from forests is assigned a commercial value of “timber.”35 He is criticiz-
ing postindustrial technological attitudes toward woodland, but it turns
out to be one of the chief liabilities of hylomorphic theory. We cannot
see the trees for the forest of our own Umwelt. Agamben’s description
of the forest betrays the same myopia: “There does not exist a forest
as an objectively fixed environment: there exists a forest-for-the-park-
ranger, a forest-for-the-hunter, a forest-for-the-botanist, a forest-for-
the-wayfarer, a forest-for-the-nature-lover, a forest-for-the-carpenter,
and finally a fabled forest in which Little Red Riding Hood loses her
way.”36 The medieval period has been called an “age of timber.”37 The
attitude resulted in deforestation that precipitated what has been called
an ecological crisis of the fourteenth century.38 Chaucer’s Parliament of
Fowls springs immediately to mind, where the “byldere ok” and “say-
lynge fyr,” among other trees, are cataloged according to human utility
alone.39 Given such conditions on the ground, then and now, it is time
to inquire into the wooden thing in and for itself.
Something closer to philosophical realism is needed if we are to get
a clearer view, and here I want to turn to Vilém Flusser, who offers a
sophisticated alternative account of how form and matter are mutually

implicated in the wooden table. As he says of carpenters, “they take the

form of a table (the ‘idea’ of a table) and impose it upon an amorphous
piece of wood. The tragedy here is that in so doing they not only in-
form the wood (impose the table form on it) but also deform the idea
of the table (distort it in the wood). The tragedy is that it is impossible
to make an ideal table.”40 A number of consequences follow from this
quite simple empirical observation. Every individual table fails the given
form to some extent, and decomposes forms, or to put this in a more
positive light, every table is the invention of untold form. For Flusser, this
state of affairs in craftwork—where materials are formative and exhibit
forces—entails a more general point about how things come between
human productivity and progress, standing in the way of human projects
and economies even as they keep them going.41 Flusser broadens the
notion in another place by observing that the human subject has no
choice but to entrust social life to material objects, finding appropriate
means through which to express value and pass on collective information
about the species, from generation to generation. Made objects become
the bearers of acquired knowledge, as if they were storage and retrieval
devices: “humanity hopes to possess two types of information storage:
one for genetic information, the egg, and one for acquired information,
objective culture (books, buildings, paintings).”42 From Flusser we get
the picture of the table as an informatic technology. That view compares
rather well with a point Arendt makes about the solace available from ob-
jects whose life expectancy is longer than that of any human individual:
“the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and
their objectivity lies in the fact that—in contradiction to the Heraclitean
saying that the same man can never enter the same stream—men, their
ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that
is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. In
other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the
man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched
nature.”43 The limitation of such a notion of objectivity, no matter how
nuanced, is that objects are neither so stable nor acquiescent, and, in
failing to pass on the same information in perpetuity, they become
recalcitrant and rivalrous. Fortunately Flusser’s empiricism does not
rest on some immutable natural order or static objectivity. “To inform
objects is to struggle against the specific perfidy of every object. This

struggle slowly reveals the resistance of objects: the structure of cotton

that gives way, of glass that cracks, of concrete that dries out, of the tonal
scale that becomes tempered, or of the syntax that flexes.” This nuisance
of resistant or entropic objects continually “provokes” us to take up an
orientation toward things themselves, and, consequently, they are spurs
to obsessive human industry. Craft is the site of an initial feedback loop
between active objects and reactive, self-correcting subjects. Becoming
passionately involved in one or another medium, humans bend them-
selves toward matter by taking up a multitude of vocations (sculptor,
writer, carpenter) and dividing up their labor with such alacrity that
they “forget [their] original purpose, that of informing objects so that
the information can continue to be available to other men. The object
itself absorbs man’s interest.”44
What has origins in the desire for species survival ends up subor-
dinating social goods and ethical impulses to a concentrated attention
on things. Lost in work, humans are liable to sacrifice themselves to
their works; they are consumed by what they produce. The character
of the sacrifice is there in the way individuals exhibit an immoderate
fascination with the materiality and exteriority of many made objects,
including things made out of language. For Flusser, poetry is indeed a
chief example of objectification and materialization, because in it we tend
to treat language as an expressive end instead of as a simple means of
communication. His is no Platonic poiesis. In Republic X, Plato famously
posits divine forms of beds and tables that carpenters make and poets
imitate: the poets are supposed furthest from true reference, communi-
cating the least information about the world of things; the philosophers
obtain real insight by their contemplation of higher things existing
beyond the veil of appearances. So the mimetic table is a pale reflection
not just of any real wooden table but also of the Form of the Table. If
anything, Flusser reverses the polarity of the Platonic critique of poiesis,
according more reality to the empirical instance (table) than to the dis-
embodied and generalizable form (Table). For one thing, the failure of
the particular instance to live up to a form is proof of the materiality of
the thing itself. Even well-formed things tend to show up the matter at
hand. Poetry itself materializes language, creating objects that are more
than just conveyors of semantic content. Similarly, human woodwork is
the materialization of wood, ligneous matter having become more than

a communication of received forms of tables, chairs, and the like. It is

in such activities that humans become themselves, not through pure
intellection or ideation but in and thanks to the provisions of matter.
Flusser’s is a radically realist metaphysics, empiricist and alert to causal
relations among things. What he describes as the dispensation of human
work can be extended to the point that we start to see the possibilities
of things as not only ours but also their own. In other words, Flusser’s
realism is preparatory to a better understanding of the singular object
and of the massively collective, interobjective life of things.


But we should press further, starting with the substance and solidity
of the thing itself—the object prior to interobjectivity. Consider one
well-known example of the dining table in the General Prologue to
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: here is the Franklin’s “table dormant” that
is “redy covered al the longe day,” clearly indexed to human ambitions
even as it appears to remain unmoved by them.45 The thing provides the
reliable backdrop for a decadent display of conspicuous consumption,
forming a large part of the portrait of the man, whom we can imagine
relishing the association. But there are reasons to believe that the table
stands as something more substantial, even stealthier than that.
The surfeit of epicurean delights is something to behold on the
Franklin’s table, for “It snewed [snowed] in his hous of mete and dryn-
ke.”46 The table is well provisioned with seasonable abundance (“Of alle
deyntees that men koude thynke / After the sondry sesons of the yeer”),
serving up a continual round of potables and comestibles.47 Russell’s
Boke of Nurture happens to feature a Franklin’s “feste Improberabille,”
which contains a splendid variety of foodstuffs restricted only by the
season, “Aftur þe terme of þe yere fulle deynteithly.”48 The first course
consists of brawn with mustard, bacon and peas, beef or mutton stew,
boiled chicken, roasted goose and pig, and meat pies or pastries; the
second is soup or stew, veal, rabbit, chicken, or pigeon, and more pies;
then fritters and a lovely flan; then spiced apples and pears when in
season, with bread and cheese; the meal is finished with spiced cakes
and wafers and honeyed drinks. No table as such is mentioned in
Russell’s description, which may indicate the extent to which the thing is

overwhelmed by an avalanche of foodstuffs. Chaucer’s Franklin’s table

seems equally subservient and serviceable if only more conspicuous as
furniture, a fixture in his hall (unlike others in the period, which were
moveable trestle tables with portable benches). The table is ready-to-
hand, standing by until needed to fulfill the appetites and ambitions of
the man who would follow Epicurus. The Franklin’s table is one among
other ostentatious signs of success, set out at all times, as though stand-
ing in state. Not only does the table serve up abundance, then, but the
physical thing also counts as another visible status object. It is indeed
a fine example of the “mensa decens” (a proper or handsome table)
supposed to be among the few important items that define the worthy
householder, according to one entry in John of Garland’s thirteenth-
century Dictionarius.49 Such a table evidently has a central place in the
symbolic economy: it communicates to the world that there will be a
steady supply and display of surplus goods in the household, and that
this excessive jumble of foodstuffs will be supported by and set out on
an orderly, stable frame. From this perspective, the table is indeed, in
Marxist or Derridean terms, a capital object. We might also think of the
table, as Heidegger does, as “equipmental,” deriving meaning by being
proximate and ready-to-hand. As Heidegger explains in his celebrated
tool-analysis, in which he invokes the writing table as one among other
things in his own home, equipment accords with systems of human
“assignment or reference.” It is above all a belonging. “Equipment—in
accordance with its equipmentality—always is in terms of its belonging
to other equipment: ink-stand, pen, ink, paper, blotting pad, table, lamp,
furniture, windows, doors, room.”50 They do not tend to show up first
as discrete realia. Their meaning is derivative and directed to human
ends, as seems to be almost unavoidably the case for dining tables from
the medieval period down to our own.
At the same time, and without denying the truth of any of the fore-
going analysis, the Franklin’s table remains standing in excess of any
real status or symbolic capital. As Vance Smith observes, the “carnal
spectacle of a blizzard of meat and drink” is excessive and unnecessary
to the running of a household.51 In his penetrating analysis, the table
threatens to transgress the “arts of possession,” a habituated way of
thinking and acting that “consists in knowing why we possess some-
thing, in knowing why it is necessary to our existence. The obligation

to make these distinctions implies that we are also confronted by things

that are not necessary to our existence, that one is always confronted
by surplus. The real problem is not acquiring enough to keep one alive
but deciding how to make the surplus meaningful or, rather, how to
prevent it from acquiring too much meaning.”52 On one hand, a steady
surplus may seem necessary to distinguish the properly human from
brute necessity. Yet excess is also the vantage from which one can be-
gin to glimpse something more-than-human in that relation. Turning
against basic needs and nourishment, the table becomes a material
tableau of the perversely inutile thing that it is, and for this reason,
some fellow pilgrims would have considered the Franklin’s open signs
of indulgence extremely objectionable. Readers are often inclined to
compare the Franklin’s extravagance unfavorably with the austerity of
the “bord” described at the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.53 The
Parson would pick the Franklin’s table out as an example of “pride of
the table,” on which I will have more to say in a moment. The table in
itself represents expenditure never to be exhausted and lacks economic
urgency, even if defined broadly to include symbolic capital or spectacle.
To be specific, the thing appears to be preserved and persists through
the round of seasons despite intermittent human use. The Franklin
consumes perishable goods on a table that is not consumed and that
remains unavailable in its availability, ever alienable just because it is
a capital object.
From here we may go further and consider the substantiality of the
table qua table, urging that the Franklin’s is a “table dormant” in the
sense defined by recent object-oriented thought. Developing Heidegger’s
tool-analysis, we may recall, Harman argues that every object refuses to
be totally drawn into human relations. Objects conceal essences about
which users know nothing, just because they are individuated things,
existing in and of themselves, and so are in some sense “withdrawn” or,
as Harman calls them, “dormant objects.”54 On this account, the sub-
stantial unity and perdurability of a dormant table exists apart from all
visible and sensual relations and transactions; such an object is never
totally swallowed by relations. It is autonomous and abstracted, holding
back reserves of agency and identity, unmoved despite all that moves
around its contours. That is not the usual way of reading, as Harman
notes in a discussion of object-oriented literary criticism. As he observes

by way of the example of the table-structure and table-event, “everyone

wants to demolish the object, as if it were some naïve remainder that no
philosopher could allow on earth unchallenged.”55 Instead of explaining
or contextualizing the object away, Harman wants to be able to preserve
the table in its integrity. Lingis has a similar sense of the substantiality of
the table: “the table itself is not so many impressions imprinted on our
surfaces nor the sum of its functional uses; it is contained in itself, exists
beyond all we could ever itemize of it.”56 The thing is never identical
to its reification. “Things are ends and not means only.”57 Such a table
must at some level repose alone, abstemiously set apart from socializing,
gourmandizing franklins, and in this ontological aspect, the Franklin’s
household goods can begin to seem quite indifferent to the good of the
household, a possession never totally possessable by any man. It may
surprise those who treat them as possessions.
We may think of the “table dormant,” then, as the perdurable thing
itself that threatens to dispossess the man of his belongings, elaborating
on the idea that such fetish objects recruit their adherents to keep up
with demands for continual filling and feasting. Obsessed as he is with
such an impersonal and estranging thing, the Franklin is, if anything,
defined by his possessions and expenditures, which is why his portrait
includes the item in the first place. Chaucer, having situated the table
here much as he has defined other pilgrims by their tools and garments
(“array”), is responding to the exigency of the thing, an object with such
an obsessive appeal that it practically occludes the subject. As Benso
argues in apropos terms, subjects abandon themselves to objects all the
time, transforming from “host” or “master” to “guest” or “servant” of
things.58 In any event, a table is intransitive and irreducible, and whatever
appeal it has is only one sensual quality, not its essential being. Of all
things, a dinner table is surely set up to serve the human, but the dormant
table is still, underneath everything, a freestanding, alienable object,
giving itself over only to partial relations and translations—including
textual and economic ones that we can belatedly track.
Positing such an assertive object-ontology, we are well placed to
rethink how the table does in fact affiliate, associate, and mediate be-
tween agents at mealtime gatherings and within other assemblages,
including textual ones (literary gatherings). On what occasions does this
or that quality of the table become apparent and afford action? It may

seem that, in practice, things are transparent and compliant, whatever

their supposed hidden designs or depths, but in fact, the equipment
functions because of agreements struck between subjects and objects.
As Heidegger says in another place, tables exhibit forces we respect in
everyday life. Comporting ourselves toward them, we practically make
ourselves commensurate to them. “In all comprehending something
as something, for instance, of the table as table, I myself measure up to
what I have comprehended.”59 This is evidence of the thing’s facticity,
indicating that meaning is never willy-nilly “imposed on the table by
relating and assimilating it to something it is not.”60 Harman would
say the object remains aloof even as it participates in grand festivities.
The point to emphasize for now is that an object is not so easily con-
sumed. The thing itself is one causal agent among others in the world,
a thought that may help us develop a better sense of how much tables
matter within texts.


The table is likely to seem to consume those who feed off the thing
unawares, giving some, as noted already, cause for concern. Tables and
tableware regularly occupy pride of place in affluent social occasions
and become so fascinating as to threaten to overtake human self-control
and good sense; they are precisely affluent objects in the original sense of
freeing up powerful flows of matter-energy, setting the human adrift on
currents that threaten to drown individual consumers. Some medieval
writers would no doubt nod in general agreement, their writings serving
as proof of the way the table insinuates itself into social and spiritual
life, constituting the very relations that obtain between them. Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales again furnishes us with a fine example. Observing the
excess consumption and affected behavior on display during feasting,
Chaucer’s Parson condemns what he calls the “pride of the table”:

Pride of the table appeereth eek ful ofte [also very often]; for certes,
riche men been cleped [called] to festes, and povre folk been put
awey and rebuked. Also in excesse of diverse metes and drynkes,
and namely swich [such] manere bake-metes and dissh-metes,
brennynge of wilde fir and peynted and castelled with papir, and

semblable wast [comparable extravagances], so that it is abusioun

[shameful] for to thynke. And eek in to greet preciousnesse of
vessel and curiositee of mynstralcie, by whiche a man is stired the
moore to delices of luxurie [delight in luxury], if so be that he sette
his herte the lasse [less] upon oure Lord Jhesu Crist, certeyn it is a
synne; and certeinly the delices [luxuries] myghte been so grete in
this caas that man myghte lightly falle by hem into deedly synne.61

The medieval moralist, alert to the cultural and religious significance of

commensality, puts much weight on the table—despite his best efforts to
draw attention elsewhere. The Parson’s association with minstrel enter-
tainments is apposite, because the business of feasting must have seemed
like a theatrical production. It was no mere human drama. The table
played a supporting role. Seated on one side, diners on benches would
face their food rather than looking straight at each other. The typical
trestle table is effectively a stage on which entered a cast of flamboyant
delicacies and decorations. The latter refer to “soteltes” or “entremets”
at a grand feast where edible and inedible materials are dressed up or
disguised, producing such trompe l’oeil effects as castellated pastries,
lifelike effigies, statuary, fountains, and pyrotechnics. For the Parson,
all the pageantry makes the table a theater of vanity, luxury, and glut-
tony, and no less than a scene of an unfolding eschatological drama.
The particular attraction of prepared foods is something the Parson
condemns as “curiositee” in his discussion of gluttony later, but the point
clearly applies to other extravagances besides (in the present passage,
“greet preciousnesse of vessel and curiositee of mynstralcie”).62 It is no
wonder that the contemporary homiletic poem Cleanness makes much
of the gold and silver vessels stolen from the temple and desecrated
when they are used for drinking at Belshazzar’s feast. These include
intricate castellated cups with exquisite tower covers on whose pin-
nacles are tiny sculpted boughs and birds.63 In Wynnere and Wastoure,
a fifteenth-century didactic debate poem that includes a lengthy de-
scription of the delicacies at a rich man’s table, the poet remarks on the
shameful similarity between the overspread table with splendid dishes
and the bejeweled crucifix (“To see the borde overbrade with blasande
disches, / Als it were a rayled rode with rynges and stones”) to point up
the misplaced devotion.64 The sacrilegious mess, where an appetite for

worldly things distorts religious adherence, is considered a major site

of struggle over the destiny of the soul.
The penitential vocabulary that we find in these contexts is often
precise about the nature of the predicament. According to another con-
temporary work, John Gower’s Mirour de l’Omme, the five daughters
of Gluttony include Voracity, Superfluity, and Prodigality—and they
threaten to consume the world. In a poignant passage about what the
glutton requires, Gower makes him a gargantuan monster: “man, that
he may be fed, draws in the sea, the land, and the air; nothing suffices
for him. Ah, what a miracle of a master, who has enclosed everything
in his belly!”65 Appetite collects and consumes all available things, oc-
cluding any sense of the material means that convey one to destruction.
There is a lack of self-consciousness about the very extent to which the
glutton, subjecting everything to his desires, becomes subject to them.
The remedy for self-absorption and excess appetite entails recogniz-
ing one’s actual dependency on external matters, a chastening notion
that should lead to a humbling or humiliating of the subject (who is
no longer “master”). Accordingly, the Parson’s goal is mortification of
the flesh, resulting in a confessional subject who “nys nat sory of his
humiliacioun.”66 Such penitential critiques, with their moralizing tones,
may at first seem remote from present-day concerns, but the Parson’s
moralism adumbrates something potentially perverse about any epi-
curean enthusiasms.
Indeed, the thing to notice is the telling centrality of the table within
moral discourses and disciplinary practices, where the thing is quite
as central as the dormant table set up in the Franklin’s hall. We are
told that voracious human consumers involve themselves in a material
medium while carrying on in lofty disregard of their involution. Their
relationship to food and fetish objects is, like that of many modern
consumers who buy and discard things with abandon, not sufficiently
“materialistic” to recognize the lack of humanity in the situation.67 But
the same point needs to be brought to bear on dietetic and penitential
discourses themselves, where variations on types of feasting and fast-
ing are regular obsessions. Criticisms of the “curiositee” and “pride
of the table” consequently have further resonances than those imme-
diately intended by spiritual advisors such as the Parson, whose own
self-critical instructions are hungry for the matter at hand. Penitential

and prudential countermeasures against excess need to be seen not as

a disavowal of palatable objects but as novel forms of appetitive desire
for things. For the table assemblage becomes a most hypertrophic thing
in the urge to suppress appetites. Gluttony is one way of regarding the
assemblage. Moral rigor is another way to give the table pride of place,
submitting to—not circumventing—the matter. As we will see in rela-
tion to etiquette manuals, instructional texts, poetic fictions, and even
the ritual of Mass, there is always this paradox: a table presents a mess
of edible and inedible matters for which overcomplicated regimens and
performances are cultivated and promulgated.
To anticipate a little more, consider the dilemma for Elias in The
Civilizing Process. He shows how etiquette develops from the medieval
to modern periods and reaches an absurd apogee of refinement in the
modern formal table settings and rules of decorum, the essence of
which is captured by noting the redundancy in the nature and number
of utensils (separate forks for salad, fish, meat, and dessert; knives for
fish, meat, and dessert). For him, these accumulated ritual practices are
key to the closing off of the modern subject from the external world.
Attempting to transcend environment contexts and animal functions,
the human is supposed to come into possession of himself at the table,
surrounding himself with so many buffers against nature. Yet what if
the civility Elias has described rather attaches the human more firmly
to an exorbitant mess? What if a well-mannered and masterful modern
subject is the most perverse and primitive? This would, of course, be
to deploy the prejudicial terms of the “civilized,” whereas we should
say that all the nuances of dining etiquette, the cultivation of proper
affect, the refinement of movement, gaze, speech—all such patterns
of behavior appear to exhibit an appetite for nonhuman things. Self-
conscious corrective behavior shows that, if anything, the individual is
not unconditioned and enclosed. One is exposed. Elias, among others,
assumes that the objects of the table are relatively inert, whereas I claim
they especially engage and enthuse those who would have them be so,
appealing to curiosity and reinforcing the pride of the table. Civilization
in this sense is best understood as the habit of taking impersonal tools
and techniques so seriously as to occlude the pure subject; cleanliness,
moderation, and good nurture are alternative forms of involvement and
exuberant attachment. The table comes into focus, then, as carefully

wrought to get in the way of human communion even as it serves the

Arendt similarly writes, “To live together in the world means es-
sentially that a world of things is between those who have it in com-
mon, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world,
like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”68
For Arendt, this table is a necessary condition of human culture and is
always potentially destructive. I propose that destruction is not only a
matter of abusing things but also of the most proper use; use and abuse
both exist because of the object of table. The table is not so nourishing as
it is often taken to be by those who gather there. Such objects encroach
on human self-sufficiency and spontaneity even as they furnish livable
dwellings, humbling the human just because they are required to uphold
the human. Recalling Flusser, we remember that the object, in whatever
way, continues to absorb our interest. Something so mundane as a table
continues to form and frustrate desire.


Dining collects and connects multiple bodies, constituting gathering

places where diverse species and substances assemble ostensibly to
sustain the human. A dining table is a scene of bodily incorporation
and physical absorption, where incommensurable things cross, catalyze,
and consume one another in ways that are considered productive and
sometimes perverse. No single agent determines the mess. As Derrida
says, “one never eats entirely on one’s own.”69 In this section, I want to
consider medieval culinary arts and digestion, where the interdepen-
dencies should be fairly easy to follow, producing an initial sketch of
the “feedback” that is an inevitable part of eating and drinking. Then I
will return to consider how, in an analogous way, the inedible stuff of
the table is also part of the fare, before going on to examine selected
literary gatherings.
A huge variety of elements must be assimilated and accommodated
for a meal to take place. A human diet is dependent on the digestive
health and hygiene of the living (e.g., the complexion and tolerances of
the stomach), the qualities of digestible foodstuffs (e.g., temperaments
and interactions), the environment (e.g., regional climate, fertility of

the land, and abundance and purity of water), the available materials
and methods of food storage and preservation (e.g., pickling, smoking,
salting, or candying in an era before refrigeration or freezing), and food
preparation (e.g., requiring tools, techniques, fuel, and space for fire).
Cookery is collective and combinatory in the most basic manner: vari-
ously coated, infused, ground, stewed, baked, stuffed concoctions, the
products of the kitchen take forms of fluid suspensions and solid com-
pounds. The table therefore becomes the site of immense coalescence
of substances, where subjects survive, if they do, by extending infinite
hospitality to others. Foodstuffs are temporary intensions of manifold
extensities represented by a list of ingredients. In practice, this means
being aware of the potentially contaminating or corrupting effects of
the different elements. Remaining for a moment within the extremely
active mise en place of the kitchen, cooks were just as attuned as any
modern physician, nutritionist, or gastronome: they had to regard the
health-giving properties of different ingredients; the shelf life of ani-
mal products, fruits, and nuts; the difference between game that was
young and old, wild or tame; how to distinguish between potable and
polluted waters; and possibly the mortal dangers of overeating. There
is on the table no avoiding an intimate mixing of discrete elements, the
aforesaid prandial mess or farrago (literally, “mixed fodder”). Any seri-
ous engagement with foodstuffs effectively entails what one food theo-
rist calls “ontological commitments” to nonhuman species.70 Medieval
conduct and dietary advice are committed to the tangled ontology of
things outside because they serve the “helthe of body,”71 which is always
potentially precarious. Lydgate, among others, offers instructions on
the selection of victuals and the qualities of waters, and his “Dietary”
advises one to take “Foode accordyng to the complexioun.”72 Specifically,
the qualities of the food should match the temperaments of the species
body, as understood according to medieval (medical) humoral theory.73
Russell’s Boke accordingly recommends specific foods that are good
for digestion (“aftur mete peeres, nottys, strawberies, wyneberies, and
hardchese . . . your stomak for to ese”), and he urges moderation to
prevent bodily distemper.74 The eater basically corresponds with that
which is ingested—proverbially, as most everyone says, you are what
you eat. And so you are never far from peril.
There is no assurance that the incessant exchange of elements will

be homeopathic, though cooks and others did their best. In the messy
situation of cooking and dining, moderation and good judgment are
always key. And moderation is, like moralization, just another example
of an inescapable absorption in the material mixture that stands in excess
of the human. The closer anyone seems to come to cooking and eating,
the more the usual distinctions between culture and nature, human
and nonhuman elements seem to come undone. Human consumption
is not just an abstract system of culture no matter how systematized in
the abstract. There is no concealing the interdependencies. Granted,
what counts as edible is subject to cultural and historical change, and
nutritional value is “a culturally-constructed value.”75 Food is “laden
with symbolic meanings which are specific to the social and cultural
environment in which that food is produced and consumed.”76 And yet
it must be remembered: real animals were harmed in the making of the
meal; there are bounds beyond which the human cannot look for food
because of the size and strength of the mandible and the nature of the
alimentary canal; there are also limits beyond which the chemical or
physical constitution of a thing makes it inedible, indigestible, or poison-
ous. Hunger and thirst are hardly just social constructs to be overturned
at whim, and likewise, everybody must de facto respect the properties
of what is eaten. Threats of sickness or death are only reminders that
eating is always a risky incorporation of others. All the same, the table
defies the limits of self and other, culture and nature. There is no easy
separation of raw and cooked in the anthropology of eating. Culinary
arts are better understood as consuming the very categories. A table is
where elements are divided up and digested, not just represented. All
this is to say that the table forms a kind of Derridean “limitrophy”: a
place where heterogeneous substances are fed into the system, recalling
the “first or literal sense of trepho,” meaning “to transform by thicken-
ing, for example, in curdling milk.”77 The congealing and conversion
of substances, culinary and gustatory, disperse matter at the limits. At
the same time, limits are cultured there.
Eating presented vexed issues for those who sought to regulate the
encounter between different bodies, and the sense of danger is there in
the satirical treatments of cookery in particular (for although eating is
often taken up as an example of humanizing activity, actual cookery is
sometimes considered disparaging). Chaucer and Gower address the way

cooks transform matters out of all recognition, creating overelaborate

delicacies and adulterating their sauces. They pervert what is natural
in the process. In the Pardoner’s Tale, we read, “Thise cookes, how they
stampe, and streyne, and grynde, / And turnen substaunce into acci-
dent / To fulfille al thy likerous talent!”78 As though transubstantiating
matter, cooks prepare a sacrilegious mess to rival the Mass. Gower says
that cooks “grind, strain, turn upside down everything which God made
in such plenitude; so it seems to me that a delicate person in his eating
wants to change both God and His Ordinances.”79 And no wonder, as
some thought of cooking as a kind of alchemy.80 Russell is more focused
on threats to the equilibrium of human physiology: “Cookes with þeire
newe conceytes, choppynge, stampynge, & gryndynge, / Many new cu-
ries alle day þey ar conryvynge & Fyndynge / þat provokethe þe peple
to perelles of passage [illness],” and their concoctions “distemperethe
alle þe body, bothe bak, bely, & roppes [bowels].”81 Academic discourse
also exhibits a profound disquiet about digestion and thinks of the body
as itself a cook. Adelard of Bath spells out the problem with precision:
“The animate body acts on food; for it changes it and converts its quali-
ties. Similarly, food acts on the body; for it changes its property and
upsets its equality. . . . It happens this way that while the soul wishes her
body to be preserved by the consumption of food, she destroys it while
she restores it (although not deliberately, of course), and she loses it
while she preserves it.”82 Metabolized and modified within, food liter-
ally materializes the human body by extending the limits without. As
Bartholomaeus Anglicus writes, “mete is substaunce þat is abil to be
iturned into þe substaunce of þe body þat is ifed, and ichiþ [increases] þat
body and makeþ it more, and fediþ and susteyneth it.”83 Eating menaces
the integrity of the human even as the living body is sustained thereby,
and from this point of view, you had better not be exactly what you eat.
Everything must be carefully sanitized and analyzed. In her chapter on
“edible matter,” Bennett usefully describes “food as conative bodies vying
alongside and within an other complex body (a person’s ‘own’ body).”
Digestion accordingly “appears as a series of mutual transformations
in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry.”84 It
involves a vital kind of risk taking, possibly an evisceration of the subject.
Cochran similarly concludes, “Food as an object continues to translate
you, and you continue to translate food, even after swallowing.”85


Many medieval texts are obsessed with the exteriority and materiality of
the situation, but ironically, they exacerbate the problem in attempting
to stave off contamination and corruption by urging further involvement
in the messy material medium. Some part of humanity is outsourced
to inhuman things in any case. A concern with the thresholds where
things make contact is found in all conduct and dietary texts for the
young, as in the numerous prescriptions for the mouth, hand, eye, and
so on, everything associated with what goes in and comes out of the
body. Virtue here resides in moderating the interactions, monitoring
the flows and counterflows that are permitted between mere things and
the speaking, eating, grasping, swelling bodies that incorporate them.
The mouth is a particularly charged area, as Trigg notes, an aperture
of the body that “constellates two sets of anxieties about consumption
of food and proper speech.”86 Lydgate accordingly treats them together:
“Curteis of language, of fedyng mesurable.”87 In the same breath as
prohibiting lying, Russell enjoins a young charge neither to squirt nor
spout, sniff, pick ears, rub hands, sigh, cough, hiccup, or belch; and the
tongue should never be used to extract food from a dish.88 Cleanliness
and careful handling of things are closely related issues: one is never to
touch food with the right hand and always to use the edge of a knife to
lay the trencher.89 Urbanitatis, like most other courtesy texts, speaks of
not soiling the tablecloth.90 The Babees Book teaches that meat should
not be dipped in the saltcellar; and the cup—typically shared with a
companion at the table—is to be clean of filth.91 Lydgate’s Stans Puer
and Caxton’s Book both contain all the usual prescriptions and offer
specific instructions on how to handle spoon, knife, and other utensils.
Lydgate writes, “Fylle nat thy spone, lyst in the caryage / It went beside”
and “Of gentilnesse take salt with thy knyff.”92 Caxton offers a similar
set of admonitions:

Enbrewe [Soil] not your vessel ne youre naprye

Over maner & mesure but kepe hem clene
Ensoyle not your cuppe but kepe it clenlye . . .

Blowe not in your drinke ne in your potage

Ne farse [stuff] not your dishe ful of brede

Bere not your knyf to warde your visage

For therin is parelle and mykyl drede [much danger].93

Generally speaking, the dining subject is to move limbs and utensils so

as to avoid spilling and polluting himself and the things of the table.
The worry about cross-contamination extends to all that a human body
might consume and produce, absorb and discharge, as indicated in vari-
ous proscriptions against eating with an open mouth; leaving residues
of grease or saliva on cups, utensils, and cloth (“Wipe fair thy spone”
and “In ale or wyne with hond leve no ffatnesse; / Foule nat þi napry
for no reklesnesse”); and spreading mucus (“Pike nat thy nase”).94 The
aim is self-containment, composure, good form. Lydgate’s Stans Puer
says nails are to be pared and hands washed before eating and gener-
ally instructs the young to keep feet, fingers, and hands “stille in peace.”
They should govern their looks (“cast not thy look asyde, / Gaze nat
aboute,” but look up when spoken to by superiors), avoid scratching or
rubbing, walk demurely, and generally attempt to “keepe þe stille and
soffte.”95 Caxton’s Book says children must not participate in gossip and
should follow its prescriptions about the mouth in particular to achieve
a general condition of “humanyte.”96 Nothing less than this is at stake.
Humanizing is a central issue, and so naturally, children are the
targets of prescriptions on how to handle and consume objects. As the
literature of children’s nurture readily acknowledges, available food-
stuffs and table regimens are genuinely formative. Babees Book starts
by asking help from God, who “Fourmyd man-kynde,” before going
on to describe how those of a tender age are to be formed at the table
through a sensible diet and good decorum. The child brought up there
should acquire the “vertuous disciplyne” of Lydgate’s Stans Puer, which
is the opposite of the excesses associated with “pride of the table.” We
would seem to have all the evidence we need, then, for connecting the
medieval table to the generation of Elias’s civilized person. The dietary
in particular is a genre that “hold[s] out the promise of mastery over the
self ” and the privatization of conduct.97 The literature is humanistic in
this basic sense, encouraging the cultivation of proper affect and polite
behavior. Yet through such advice, literature simultaneously reveals
how vulnerable the body (individual and social) is before others in the
household collective, and so rather than guaranteeing self-containment
of the homo clausus, it arguably only further exposes and extends the

human outside of the confines of the individual. The literature reveals the
extent to which enhanced status and refinements at the table practically
sacrifice the subject to the objective mess. All that is outside includes the
physical implements of tableware, which, like playthings, are presented
to children as, at first, objectival. Except that unlike playtime, dinnertime
is to become a far more formal affair. Courtoisie or civilité habituates
children to take surplus goods too seriously, structuring behavior around
un-necessary objects at the table. As Elias says about the modern formal
table setting and etiquette, “nothing in table manners is self-evident or
the product, as it were, of a ‘natural’ feeling of delicacy. The spoon, the
fork, and napkin are not invented by individuals as technical implements
with obvious purposes and clear directions for use. Over centuries, in
direct social intercourse and use, their functions are gradually defined,
their forms sought and consolidated.”98
As the advice concerning how dishes, cups, napkins, and utensils
are to be handled suggests, such things are less passive instruments than
active participants a well-nurtured youth learns to respect because they
can so easily spoil the occasion. Conduct literature teaches one how to
treat such hardware as companions (literally “those who break bread
together”), taking the measure of everything around the human. Bread
and server and diner conduct a kind of dalliance together. The breaking
of bread is just one of the most visible sites of interaction and analytic
intensity during a feast, requiring cutting techniques and tools and so
many finely calibrated movements. Russell’s Boke explains at length to
the novice panter how to carry and cut bread loaves, presenting them
wrapped in a “stately” manner. An excerpt of just over half of the lines
devoted to bread gives a good indication of the mixture of balletic re-
straint and improvisation that is required:

Sir, ȝeff þow wilt wrappe þy soveraynes bred stately,

Thow must square & proporcioun þy bred clene & evenly,
And þat no loof ne bunne be more þan oþer proporcionly,
And so shaltow make þy wrappe for þy mastere manerly;
Þan take a towaile of Raynes, and ij. yardes half wold it be,
Take þy towaile by the endes double and faire on a table lay ye,
Þan take þe end of þat bought an handfulle in hande, now here
ye me:

Wrap ye harde þat handfulle or more it is þe styffer, y telle þe,

Þan ley betwene þe endes so wrapped, in myddes of þat towelle,
Viij loves or bonnes, botom to botom, forsothe it wille do welle,
And when þe looffes ar betwen, than wrappe hit wisely & felle . . .

The lord and guests eat off of trenchers and so require the bread to be
set out in ways that are both convenient and attractive. Here the panter’s
handling of bread and fine cloth is the scene of various ennobling ac-
tions, resulting in bread “honestly arayd.”99 Diners also wield knives for
bread and other foodstuffs, on which more later, but notice already that
the privileged human subject is supposed to adopt postures considered
appropriate to bread, cloth, and knife, even as those are to remain in-
strumental things. Recall Giles of Rome teaching noble youths to adopt
a physical style that matches their substance: “eche lyme [is] iordeyned
to his owne work; for man hureth not with his mouthe but with his
ere. Thanne it were an idel for to yonye [gape the mouth] for to hurye
a tale. Also a man speketh not with feet nother with hondes nother
with sholdres.”100 A juvenile is to coordinate the limbs of the body not
just to be expressive but also to articulate with things around. Wells has
observed that table manners are accordingly consistent with a “medieval
theory of gesture,” connecting table regimens with regiminal literature.101
All things of the table—including cutlery, platters, bowls, spice
mortars, among others—play their part in the choreography of the table,
shaping the responses that are possible in relation to them. So one is
not supposed to play with the knife; the spoon should not be overfilled;
fingers should not be dipped into bowls of sauce. The knife, spoon, and
bowl condition various moves. In each of these prescriptions, the table-
ware enters into what Lingis, following Merleau-Ponty, calls the human
“postural schema,” which refers to the way habits are keyed to objects
in a given environment.102 The virtuous discipline involved in modulat-
ing gestures and gaze is indebted to what can, practically speaking, be
touched or seen at the table. Conduct takes the measure of the material
assets present (e.g., the way a knife cuts through bread, the hand holds
a cup upright, or eyes see something to advantage) and consequently
directs mental and kinesthetic energies toward them. Just as things
are made proportionate to human bodies—the spoon, we recall from
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, “is a litil instrument of þe mesure of þe mouth

and proporcionate þerto”—so bodies must proportion themselves to

things. “And þerwiþ þe honde serveth þe mouþe of dyvers metes.”103 To
use a spoon in a controlled manner is to see how the spoon realizes itself
in the hand’s grip, flexed muscle, bent limb, motion and concentration;
it is to comport the body to the spoonful. According to similar logis-
tics, the trestle table and bench stabilize assembled bodies at mealtime,
providing a structural frame that enables other things to flow or freely
move (almost like a solid chassis with moving parts). What is engaged
here leaves an impress on the body: human movements are implicatory
rather than unilateral actions taken toward passive things. One way
to put this is to say, as Sara Ahmed does with eloquent simplicity, the
table’s profile is my profile.104 While this is a suggestive formulation so
far as it goes, that bare description overestimates the fit of the several
assembled bodies and rests too comfortably in a spatial understanding.
There is always more than one way to sit and take food, for example,
and we should rather emphasize that a table represents a set of possible
moves afforded by the temporality of the situation. To dine is to enter
into what Ingold calls a temporary “taskscape,” engaging in a succes-
sion of movements that constitute the skillful activity of dwelling.105
Temporalizing the object, we can see that any proper fit between things
constitutes a moving target and that all actual gestures are just making
their way toward that ideal without necessarily realizing it in action. In
fact, dining can be one of the most dicey, pressurized situations.
And this leads me to another point that may be drawn from such
formalized strategies for dwelling together. That there are many pos-
sible routes through the taskscape suggests there is some allowance for
different ways of doing things with things. Yet one is usually supposed
to adopt a single pattern of action. Why discipline a subject according
to this set of rules in relation to that set of objects? There is something
gratuitous, ostentatious, and ornamental about decorous implementa-
tions of the body (almost as false and fetishistic as some of the table
implements, and as unnecessary as sumptuous fare), and far from estab-
lishing the unaccountable freedom of the subject, this sort of regulation
and modulation of the physical body exposes the fine calibration of
subject and object. It is the peculiar way subjects become mannered or
acquire what subsequent ages would call sprezzatura or, later still, cool.
Tables and tableware amount to human hardware that is not merely hu-

man: the table bends the body, directs the visual apparatus, puts things
within reach, and is a prosthesis by which a kinesthetic body rises to
the occasion. So we should emphasize again the self-estrangement that
is entailed in the name of propriety, failing as such efforts do to fulfill
the basic demands of the bodily appetite for food and drink. There is no
question of allowing the diner simply and easily to feed and fill up the
body. Lydgate’s “Dietary” teaches that one should leave the meal with
some appetite remaining, and Caxton’s The Book of Curtesye teaches the
child to curb “uncurteys appetyte.”106 The goal everywhere is temper-
ate diet: “mesure is a mery meene.”107 As Trigg observes, “the art of fine
eating is the art of not seeming to need to eat.”108 The table is the place
where one modifies desires and modulates gestures to such an extent
that being there is not primarily about fulfilling the appetites whetted
at table. It is about sacrificing natural function to make room for an
insentient thing. The table is at once an implement and impediment to
desire. Propriety at mealtime, like poetry, is something like the gross
inefficiency of objects coming between subjects (at least from the point
of view of those seeking greater efficiencies), deforming consumption
thereby. In the evolutionary sense, the table is not adaptive. It takes
priority over the human, who must adapt to the strictures of the thing.


Derrida’s limitrophy is above all meant to articulate the messy line

separating species, namely, the limit of which he says “we have had a
stomachful,” the “limit between Man with a capital M and Animal with
a capital A.”109 And here, too, the table intervenes, enacting a limit by
crossing species, mixing hard materials and soft, fleshy bits of animals.
There is a whole zoogastronomy of the table to consider. A domestic
animal eating crumbs fallen from the table must have been a common
sight.110 Hunting dogs were companion animals that helped secure the
meat, and they may have enjoyed some animal flesh nearby in the din-
ing hall. Chaucer’s Prioress is memorably described as feeding her lap-
dogs the finer food that graced the table (roasted flesh, milk, and white
bread).111 Whole animals, or large parts of them, were typically brought
out into the open and prepared for carving at table. Not only did feasts
serve up large quantities of meat and other organic material, they put

floral and faunal imagery in the foreground, playing on associations and

crossing otherwise incommensurable matters (organic and inorganic,
living and dead flesh, this and that animal body). The Parson already
alluded to “soteltes,” but we should note some of the ways cooks played
with meat to imitate nature: on lean or fish days, they might disguise
one food as another (so that fish takes on the appearance of animal flesh;
dried fruits become morsels of meat; other substitutions are used for
eggs, butter, cheese, etc.), while on other occasions, a roasted animal
was presented in a “lifelike pose.”112 “The wild boar’s head, caught in the
act of eating an apple, is of course the prototype of such reanimational
or restorative cuisine.”113 Among the other types of edible taxidermy,
fowl was sometimes roasted and then redressed in its own feathers,
made to look as though it were nearly alive again.114 One such peacock
was offered at the coronation feast described in Lydgate’s “Soteltes,”
where we also find a boar’s head presented in castellated pastries, a
lion mounted on another pastry, and antelopes and leopards etched or
sculpted elsewhere.115 Lydgate is participating in a culinary theatrics that
has many precedents, particularly when it comes to the way animals are
exploited. Sometimes different animal parts were combined to generate
hybrids, as in the famed Cockantrice.116 Banquets featured additional
anthropomorphized spectacles such as pilgrim capons or the jousting
cock, Coqz heaumez.117 The Liber Cure Cocorum describes a sleight by
which “somme mete schalle seme raw” and another trick for making
fish or meat appear wormy.118 Sweets served at meal’s end could take
whimsical animal forms.119 Alongside these ingenious edible confections
enjoyed by the wealthy, at least, tables and chairs were festooned with
botanical and zoological designs. A grandee’s seat might have animal
head moldings or zoomorphic finials. Jugs, cups, and cauldrons offer
plenty of other surviving examples: some vessels have claw feet and
animal engravings; jugs, which naturally have necks and mouths that
perhaps lead to suggestions of animacy, sometimes sport reptilian tail
handles; spoons have animal moldings on the terminals. Aquamaniles
commonly take the shape of eagles, lions, and horses (see Plate 11).120
And yet despite all the composite animal–vegetable–mineral matter
around the table, the dangers of mixing were often recognized, not least
in proscriptions against behaving in a beastly manner. Indeed, we find
animal-shaped aquamaniles set in place to clean dirt off hands that might

otherwise carry in contaminants from the animal outside. Cleanliness

is again a distinction of the mannered man. For this reason, you must
never scrape or claw your dog.121 Equally, do not twist your neck like
a jackdaw or wrinkle your face like a hedgehog.122 “Make þou noþer
cate ne hond / Thi felow at þou tabull round.”123 Lowering the human
to the level of the animal—morally or physically—was obviously to be
avoided lest the feedback we are describing become too apparent.124 As
all the prescriptions so far suggest, humans can easily fall into animality.
Legends often tell of men who shared their tables with beasts or had
become subhuman at the table. Pierre Bersuire’s Ovidius Moralizatus
rehearses the story of Circe and the Greeks: “She offered them cups and
made them sit at her table,” and on drinking, they turned into pigs. Her
drink represents, among other things, “carnal delights,” the consump-
tion of which causes men to lose human form.125 Medieval penitentials
were equally cautious. Gluttony would, for example, submit a person
to “swine’s rule” rather than God’s.126 In Gower’s Mirour de l’Omme,
the glutton has a voracious “canine appetite” and seizes his prey—that
is, poor neighbors he ruins because of his prodigality—like a wolf.127
Food is meant to sustain the life of the human, but it can easily lead to
degeneracy or dehumanization. One has an equally ambivalent relation-
ship to the tableware, which unsettles normative species distinctions,
presenting such a fascinating array of animal imagery, promiscuously
mixing species. As punishment for King Phineas’s inhumanity, the gods
send birds and dogs to befoul his tables.128 But this is perhaps the condi-
tion of every table featuring zoomorphic spoons, jugs, and ewers—and
so many dead animals.
Yet the animal body is always supposed to remain subordinate,
carved up and served to human guests. Russell spends much time de-
scribing how to part fish and animal flesh in the right order, leisurely
describing the techniques for different animals.129 As a form of butchery,
the implications are hard to miss, and Steel’s point about the one activity
applies to the other: “Butchery materially enacts the divinely ordained
privilege of being human. Through their routine violence to animals,
butchers produce not only meat but also the clearest proof of the hu-
man dominion over—and therefore distinction from—animals.”130 But
because the knife is a dangerous implement that causes bodily harm, the
utensil is fraught with further implications when brought to the common

table. Medieval conduct knows as much. Carvers are supposed to hold

the knife not with the fist but with two fingers and thumb, demonstrating
delicacy and dexterity in the improvised action of cutting and raising
food to the mouth:

Son, þy knyfe must be bryght, fayre, & clene,

And þyne handes faire wasche, it wold þe welle be sene.
Hold alwey þy knyfe sure, þy self not to tene [harm],
And passe not ij. fyngurs & a thombe on thy knyfe so kene;
In mydde wey of thyne hande set the ende of þe haft Sure,
Unlasynge [Carving] & mynsynge ij. fyngurs with þe thombe
þat may ye endure . . .

The text continues with specific instructions for the different types of

Son, take þy knyfe as y taught þe whileere [formerly],

Kut braune in þe dische riȝt as hit liethe there,
And to þy sovereynes trenchoure with þe knyfe ye hit bere:
Pare þe fatt þer-from be ware of hide and heere [hair] . . .

Towche not þe venisoun with no bare hand

But withe þy knyfe; þis wise shalle ye be doande [proceed],
Withe þe fore part of þe knyfe looke ye be hit parand,
Xij. draughtes [cuts] with the egge [edge] of þe knyfe þe
venison crossande.131

There is an art to knowing how properly to lift, lay, pare, score,

break, and serve the flesh of various animals, mostly by manipulating
the knife as a sharp analytical instrument. As mentioned, carvers and
dinner guests must keep the blade far away from the face, “For therin
is parelle and mykyl drede.”132 And the knife should be clean of associa-
tions with any other butchering context (“Brynge no knyves onscored
to the table”).133 These sorts of regulations lead Elias to conclude that
manners are for transcending materiality and animality.134 But far from
guaranteeing the “civilizing process” in those reassuring terms, the sharp
point of the knife, which usually puts down other species for human

consumption, renders the human vulnerable as any animal meat.There

is only the directionality of the cut, the analytic break or shaking loose of
things provisionally assembled, including the business of human deco-
rum and dining.135 On one hand, I mean simply to point up the general
sense of being subject to the mess: manners are not transcendent but
immanent to the material things with which a body engages even when
breaking them down for consumption, and they are so easily perverted
because of the contingent relations that obtain between implements in
the improvisations required of eating well. A knife has to be carefully
modulated in practice. Carving must be done with a moderate “ap-
petyte,” not rashly or haphazardly, as one uses a knife elsewhere, as in the
field.136 Such composure is supposed to signal human superiority over
the technical instruments and the relevant taskscape. But the kinesthetics
of dining at the table has an unpredictable element, and moreover, as
I have been emphasizing, appetite suppression is always problematic,
requiring an improper relationship to the animal body in the name of
impersonal propriety. Other kinds of tortured behavior cannot be far
behind, as seen in some extreme literary examples. People are repeatedly
betrayed, tricked, and killed by the knife’s edge and served at the table.
In his Fall of Princes, Lydgate relates the legend of Artreus, in which he
is said to have slain Thiestes’s children, bled their throats, carved and
roasted their parts, and “served hem atte table,” and the ordinary idiom
intensifies the shock and spectacle. Similarly, in another place, we read
that Astryages murders and makes a meal of the son of Harpagus:

The sone was slayn of Arpagus the kyng,

And afftir rosted, allas, ful causeles,
And sithe [then] presentid, amongis al the pres [company],
Toforn [Before] his fader, a thyng most lamentable,
With Astriages as he sat at table.

Elsewhere, a tyrannical father dismembers his son and delivers small

pieces of familial flesh to the unsuspecting mother.137 The hardware as-
sociated with dressing and eating animals is converted for the purposes
of wicked cannibalistic acts, where the subject—usually the child—
becomes one among other edibles. The table is often a scene of extreme
humiliation in Lydgate’s Fall, even as, in his dietary and conduct texts,

Lydgate is insistent that subjects will become truly humanized there,

and so we can conclude that, in the end, the knife cuts both ways. Other
massacres occur at the table, suggesting that it is a shameful place to die
in a long tradition.138 So the knife cuts. As Serres writes in an evocative
passage in The Parasite, “the knife kills a man or an animal. . . . It slices.
It does not decide but slices.”139 The cutting that takes place at the mess
table stands at the inauguration of the consciousness of shared human
and animal frailty, and, in the end, mortality. Distinctions between
predator and prey, host and parasite, get confounded.
Of course, the table plays a crucial role by elevating humans over
other creatures, much as any seat of authority or royal dais exploits height
as a geometrical sign of superiority. As a physical scaffold, the table
aids in the separation of species, stratifying an immanent field where
distinctions easily vanish. Ambrose made the point explicit centuries
ago: “Have regard for the conformation of your body and assume in
accordance with it the appearance of loftiness and strength. Leave to
animals the sole privilege of feeding in a prone position.”140 The habit of
eating on the ground was repudiated—considered both too animal-like
and pagan—in favor of the humanizing possibilities of table and chair.
An upright posture while sitting and eating is a simple expression of
human exceptionalism, endowing one with dignity. Yet the table also
taxes the human with a constant reminder of what it takes to achieve the
distinction. As Steel concludes in a beautiful treatment of posture, “all
bodies can only pretend to be upright; all are down here, constitutively
interconnected and subject to an end; all must be immanently some-
where; all belong to others in ways they can hardly know.”141


I have argued that material forms consist of the impress of one body on
another, manifesting the way sensual qualities interact and pull apart.
The formal maintenance of behavior manifests the way things play off
the body and register their presence. Human conduct strains to make
table and tableware consistent with prevailing forms and norms, but
in turn that conduct is shaped and shadowed by matter in unexpected
ways. On this logic, everyday conduct results in a comportment toward
things that is comely and cultured not just in the sense of decorous; being

mannered is becoming in the more important epigenetic sense discussed

earlier in the book. A table is part of a milieu in which agents are drawn
together to carry out actions they otherwise would not have ventured;
and it is a matrix that reproduces the child. Consumption, then, does
not amount to unilateral actions taken toward passive things, as though
everything were simply fed one way into the system. Consumption is
productive. It consists in continual feedback. Conduct is the way humans
deploy things as things, and in that respect, things deploy the human.
Conduct literature, too, is a corpus that is formed and informed by
the available household equipment, if not in a transparent or totalizing
way, given the perceivable distance between props, practices, and poeti-
cal expression. Yet the several poetic texts on which I have been drawing
are deeply expressive of the way things of the table spread out to make
all manner of texts, which in turn form and inform conduct, feeding
one another. The working assumption for anyone who is a practitioner
at least is that language and literary texts are not mere representations
of things but rather conspicuous occasions for them. Both belong to
a causal order in which one may impinge on others interobjectively,
though they may do so only indirectly and imperfectly. Harman’s no-
tion of “vicarious” or “occasional” causation, according to which sensual
relations between objects take place through indirect means, is a meta-
physical account of such interactions. Objects relate by means of some
“vicar or intermediary,” never completely interpenetrating.142 And yet
they do touch. Harman permits us to speculate that in some comparable
manner, literary texts are formed by proxy, as if on behalf of objects.
Less mysterious to most of us is the way texts, which are objects too,
can exert pressures on other things. A knife and instructions for carving
exemplify the causal relation. According to Trigg’s suggestive descrip-
tion, “carving demands a specific and precise vocabulary and procedures:
it is a very textual art.”143 That these demands for language seem to be
issued by tools and techniques suggests there is something about them
that almost awaits textualization. In other words, they make themselves
available to representation—or they present themselves vicariously. A
more practical understanding of the intercourse between things and texts
may be acquired by way of Anscombe and Austin’s “direction of fit.”144
In everyday speech acts, we are just as liable to consider an inventory
incorrect when it fails to match the stock, as we are to say the stock is

incomplete when it does not match the inventory. The direction of fit
between word and world can run either way, depending on the situa-
tion. In one way, the world has priority; in the other, words do. Popular
school texts composed by Englishmen residing in Paris in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries demonstrate how this can work, or must work,
for schoolboys to learn their Latin. Adam of Petit Pont’s De utensilibus,
Alexander Nequam’s De nominibus utensilium, and John of Garland’s
Dictionarius all draw extensively on the terminology of cooking and
dining to aid in lexical and grammatical training.145 As Adam writes
in a preface, “intentio auctoris est colligere sub compendio nomina
utensilium et rerum usitatissimarum que multis etiam eruditis ignota
erant” (the intention of the author is, for the general benefit, to collect
the names of utensils and most useful things which are unknown even to
many of the learned).146 It is not just a matter of naming what everyone
already knows but of gathering names for things standing and signifying
in advance of the knower. The result is an inventory of household utensils
occasioned by real existing things; the inventory does not demand that
objects suddenly appear to fit the utterance. Learning proceeds in some
important respect from the kitchen and dining room. Conduct texts,
let us now say, tend to work in both directions at once. Expanding such
notions of the vicarious, the occasional, and the fitting utterance, I want
to go on to experiment with a similar idea of the way things eventuate in
language, becoming discursive, a move that would have been premature
earlier. For now we are well placed to see that the table is no tabula rasa,
even when it groans under the weight of discourse, bearing up social
significaciouns. A table signifies in the first place because it is sociable
and substantive. On this view, it is because objects are presentable and
practicable that they can become significant, entering into and exciting
discourse, producing texts that are occasional in a more general sense
than is often meant by the term. The table is no less than an informatic
and archival device, conserving data on which discourses continually
draw. Converted into information, bits and bites of food become food
discourse. The idea is to explore what happens when we attempt to move
in the direction of world to word, and back again.
There are all manner of texts—encyclopedias; wordbooks; in-
struction manuals; recipe books; philosophical, historical, and literary
works—that register and conduct the sensual and visual delights of the
table, and we should run through some examples. One very peculiar case

with which to start is Lydgate’s “Soteltes,” an easily digestible example

with which to begin thinking about discursivity in relation to materiality.
Lydgate’s text is a record of a most spectacular royal feast, containing a
description of the menu and ornamental devices set out at the corona-
tion banquet of Henry VI. In it, the familiar political ambitions of the
Lancastrians (i.e., claims to the dual monarchy of England and France
and arrogation of orthodox ecclesiastical authority) take physical form
in an edible tableau, which mingles food, image, and text. They are large
ideas promulgated on more than one occasion by the court publicist
and poet Lydgate, which now materialize at the table. The feast is a
matter of discourse and dietetics, then, multiply inscribed on bodies
through which it is meant to pass. Food is actually emblazoned with
heraldic symbolism and mottos, accompanied by Lydgate’s English po-
etry; when ingested by dinner guests, the food, image, and text become
incorporated in the body. Finally, the whole occasion is commemorated
in textual form in several surviving manuscripts. Guests are invited to
swallow royal propaganda no less, and later readers may also re-create
the performance in their minds. Lancastrian ideology thus takes edible
form, as, for example, in the jellied fish on which is etched, “Te Deum
Laudamus,” which is subsequently captured in manuscript form:

When the text of the jellied dish is written into a menu, which
is written into a manuscript, along with the written description
of the spectacle, and the written inscriptions of Lydgate’s verses,
the entire text comes to replicate the conditions of the original
public performance. The readers of this manuscript would meta-
phorically consume words in a manner analogous to the literal
consumption of words at the original banquet. In a sense, the final
act in the performance of the banquet is the consumption of the
stage and props and the script itself by performers who are also
the audience; in a broader sense, the performance extends to the
textual afterlife of the event, wherein the reader is like an audience
member, witnessing the spectacle, and like a performer, actively
completing the show.147

The inscription of table and text is reciprocal, though it may appear to

be the case that sovereign political agents are in charge of the feedback
process. In fact, there are numerous intermediaries, not least of which

is the medium of foodstuffs (the jelly) and animal skin (parchment) on

which ideological inscription can take. There is no laudatory banquet-
ing without such a distribution of agency. The king’s will in this case
would not have been realized without such things acting as “vicars” on
his behalf.
The relations that obtain between text and table in this peculiar
Lydgatian–Lancastrian table assemblage may still seem determinately
“top down,” and so we can look to pedagogical texts for clearer examples
of the way the mess manifests itself in and through language. The se-
quence by which carving knife, carving activity, and carving instructions
are mutually inscribed in conduct literature is already indicative of the
close fit. The tableware forms the matter of the text, and subsequently,
the text functions as a script for re-creating the matter in nontextual
form whenever needed. What the practice of instruction presumes is
that there is a sufficient amount of consistency across different trans-
lations of matter. Latour’s notion of the cascade of inscriptions in the
empirical sciences can help elucidate the process I am describing.148
The idea is that there is a chain of reference one can follow across vast
distances of space and time, where reference includes not just docu-
mentation or representation but also practical regimens, interventions,
engagements, measurements, and conveyance mechanisms. In medieval
didactic poetry on carving or any other aspect of cooking and dining,
the literature brings faraway things nearby, and—like the diagrams,
database, censuses, or tables found in the scientific literature and in the
lab—functional or technical poetry performs the useful service of what
Latour calls “drawing things together.” The table permits one kind of
social gathering that is subsequently gathered in the folios of a medieval
manuscript, and it becomes the privileged site where various kinds of
activity—in all their particularity—are recollected. How do we know
that the same data, bits and bites, are captured and carried across dif-
ferent translations? Because enough is reproduced in the abstract to be
replicated on new occasions. We may be tempted to see this as a stark
choice between abstraction and concretion, or theory and practice, but
what the Latourian cascade teaches us is that abstracted matter is a form
of concrete extraction. A whole range of things associated with the table
translates into bodies and bodies of texts. The shift from one to the other
medium and method of inscription may be likened to translation “non

verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu,” not strictly word for
word but a looser sort of sense for sense. The process resembles what
Copeland calls “secondary translation,” which is the assimilation of the
source into a text that claims relative independence by displacing the
original.149 Some things are lost in translation, no doubt, but many are
captured and conducted in the most pragmatic of ways, simplified in
verbal or memorial form, and rendered on a scale that is useable. By
invoking sense-for-sense translation, I am thinking not just of mental or
scribal activity. Epicurean texts can pass on information from and for the
five senses. Ephemeral acoustic, aromatic, visual, gustatory, and tactile
stimuli of the table make their mark in and through recipes and other
instructions. Thinking in pictorial terms about the phenomenon, we
could say recipes and other household manuals are textual equivalents
of domestic “still life,” or ekphrastic poetry.
Yet they, too, are on the move in a complex taskscape. Conduct texts
refer to prior materials and practices, reassembling and memorializing
all the ingredients in a verbal form. Such voluptuous texts are also com-
municating practices for future reference and reenactment, generating
new and lively multisensory occasions.150 Just as written compositions
are marked by an antecedent mess, so those texts go on to make a mess.
“As though each banquet,” Serres writes, “integrating previous ones, eas-
ily attained the first.”151 Here we may begin to accord to how-to texts what
Cooper calls a “poetics of practicality,” which, for her, too, includes the
literature of cookery, carving, and conduct. Contemporary readers who
took up such texts were to become practitioners and not just readers,
mixing elements, producing palatable things, moving according to plan,
whetting appetites. Conduct texts succeed to the extent that they form
and inform practice outside of the text. All of the “commonplaces” about
cleanliness, bodily comportment, and companionable behavior are to
be assembled and reassembled, reserved for occasions when they can
be realized again in action (“taking place”). How-to texts are therefore
“designed less to narrate the probable past than they are to represent the
quite literally possible future.”152 The literature is consequently a nexus
of past, present, and future materializations and improvisations in the
household. It presents information that is supposed guide medieval sub-
jects, and impressionable youths in particular, to follow (i.e., “My dere
sone” of Stans Puer ad Mensam; “O yonge Babees” of The Babees Book;

“Whoso wylle of nurtur lere” of Urbanitas; the fictional “son” of Boke

of Nurture; “Lytyl John” of The Book of Curtesy). The text is an interface
between diverse matters, spaces, and times, teaching “babees” how to
translate themselves: neophytes are to develop the capacity to assimilate
and generate new objects, including objects of discourse. Speaking of
translating in the more familiar sense of intrahuman communications,
indeed, one of the main purposes of conduct texts is to instruct chil-
dren in language and, in some cases, cultivate literary taste. The Book
of Curtesy explicitly recommends Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate.153 The
pedagogical purpose recalls the practices of the wordbooks on the school
syllabus, where instruction in Latin and other languages proceeds by
reference to the household items of the kitchen and dining hall. They
are for digesting style and content. I have tended to focus on vernacular
and demotic expressions, but the results are similar: the table is a means
of communicating or communing across different domains at varying
scales, satisfying appetites for lingual matter as much as for those potable
or comestible matters served up as food.
Of course, it is not as if two points alone (table, text) explain ev-
erything that matters in the history of commensality, because there are
many other agents involved in triangulating and producing the mess.
To comprehend the proliferation of courtesy texts in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries, at least, we would need to identify more circuits,
exploits, and patches in the information network. We would have to
examine other factors in the increasingly urbanized, secularized, and
socially stratified society where newly acquired wealth was present-
ing a challenge to noble birth, and where a rising urban elite sought
a propriety to match their economic prosperity. Scholars on which I
depend have done much to fill out our understanding of these and
other aspects, including the commodification of conduct (i.e., the ac-
quisition of books of manners by bourgeois subjects) and the gendered
orientation of courtesy and conduct books (i.e., the way they prop up
masculine privilege). And in the best analyses, what tends to come to
the fore are the networks required to sustain human distinction. In any
case, a cascade of local inscriptions and vicarious actors can be shown
to ground (and disrupt) assertions of human mastery over the mess,
and that should be enough to see something of the an-economic and
ecological possibilities of household habitats.


Even the most abstract or coded literary discourses can be seen as inte-
grations and implementations of meals and manners, and I will end with
some examples that gesture toward other kinds of discourse besides the
practical or instrumental. They all point to a through-line from elemen-
tary disciplinary practices to highly sophisticated rhetorical and poetical
representations of the table, and I believe their articulations of the mess
are consistent with the argument made so far. One reason to take the
discussion in this direction, considering the material underpinnings of
complex imaginative works of literature, is to glimpse how far we might
extend the present methodology beyond the immediately functional.
What is the affiliation between real and fictional banquets? How far does
the matter of the mealtime propagate literary matter? What collective
agencies may be responsible for the way characters, narrative, and poetic
personae are formed around the mess? There is good reason to make
these inquiries: just as tables are enlisted as scaffolding to hold up the
human, so the literary works constitute heightened places to sustain
broadly humanistic ends. How does the apparatus work? Having already
considered at some length the messwork of the table (where diverse
substances and species cross and congeal), we are now in a position
to ask whether and how far textualized versions of eating and drink-
ing can cultivate the human character. Becoming human is a literary
That so many writers find it convenient to recur to the commonplace
of the banqueting table can be glossed by way of a famous passage in
Cicero’s De oratore, where the story is told about the poet Simonides
attending the feast of Scopas in Thessaly. Simonides performed a lyric
in tribute to his rich benefactor Scopas, but the panegyric included
elements that greatly displeased the nobleman. It was a fateful day for
all involved:

The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides
to go outside, as two young men were standing at the door who
earnestly requested him to come out; so he rose from his seat and
went out, and could not see anybody; but in the interval of his
absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet

fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the
ruins and killing them.

Simonides is remembered forever after for what he did next. The dead
bodies mangled beyond recognition, “Simonides was enabled by his
recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at
table to identify them for separate interment.” He discovered then and
there that memory was aided by the “orderly arrangement” of mental
images in physical locations. That sudden realization stands at the ori-
gin of the art of mnemotechnics, one of the five branches of rhetoric.
Simonides founded a precept:

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select

localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remem-
ber and store those images in the localities, with the result that the
arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts,
and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves,
and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a
wax writing tablet and the letters written on it.154

The storage of images in locations is aptly compared to writing on wax

tablets, evoking a scene of transcription and translation where one table
is substituted for another. Concrete and abstract matters are collected
and composed in the space of table and tablet alike, extending identities
and reproducing information. Such is the informatics of the table again.
Recollection is the gathering of impressions found at one or another
site, here transporting dead bodies into living memory. They are not
the only available technical implements of memory, but the feast in
particular is an important reminder that human thought is carried along
by the sensual qualities of objects. Indeed, Cicero credits Simonides as
the probable source of the idea that memory is contingent on human
sensation, and particularly on the sense of sight:

the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things
that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the
senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight,
and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by

reflexion can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also
conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes.

Cognition is something that arises out of the sensual relations between

mind and matter, by means of which spectral images are formed in
thought. “But these forms and bodies, like all the things that come un-
der our view require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without
a locality is inconceivable.”155 What Cicero calls the “mediation of the
eyes” and the required “abode” of thought describes something very
important. Mnemonics demonstrates the extent to which human per-
spectives are grounded in the psychosomatic impressions of a sensual
mess, and the table is a paradigmatic instance of the interdependency
of everything. Memory provides what Mary Carruthers calls an “ar-
chitecture for thinking,” which in this case is paradoxically founded
in the destruction of a dining hall.156 Cicero calls on the postprandial
drama of Simonides, invoking in our minds visual images of bloodied
bodies trapped under the rubble, not just to show how memory works
but also to memorialize the memorizer. On one hand, we may take the
rhetorical and pedagogical interest in the mess as an intuitive grasp of the
way physical loci and objects are relied on to produce infrastructures of
thought. On the other, we should not fail to notice something truly odd
about a situation in which human cognition depends, in this case at least,
on a catastrophe. Here it is the ruination of the banquet that fortifies the
memory of the occasion and brings about concentrated focus on a lively
scene. It is thanks to the deadly architecture and physical furnishings
that the human is recollected at all—begetting mnemotechnics and,
more generally, the cultivation of humanitas that we associate with the
memory of Cicero.
Many different medieval texts likewise work by way of the rhetorical
invocation and recombination of worldly matters, real and imagined,
extending cooking, dining, and dwelling into diverse acts of writing,
reading, translating, and memorializing. For later medieval poets who
came after Simonides and who may have been trained up on wordbooks
and encyclopedias, there seemed some basic advantages to the rheto-
ric of commensality. As mentioned earlier, there is something overtly
theatrical about the rich man’s table that seems to make the whole
scene conducive to literary ornamentation. Ostentatious visual display,

oratorical performance, and entertainments are among the main courses,

as in the grand and exotic feasts of Theseus and Cambyuskin in Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales or those of Arthur and Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight. Now tables form splendid tableaux that are entertaining
and enchanting in their own right, furnishing speculative material for
other kinds of assembly besides mealtime in a hall. Because a feast is
also a gathering at which communion and conviviality are expected,
the table is an ideal backdrop against which to remark minute quali-
tative distinctions, affective dispositions, and decorous or disgusting
behaviors. The table is all about social exposure and discrimination
of human character. The parts and processes of dining find their way
into many genres, not just the encyclopedias, practical manuals, and
penitential treatises.
Perhaps best known of all, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight intro-
duces the court of Arthur with a detailed account of an opulent banquet
given on New Year’s Day. After Mass in the chapel, the courtiers assemble
for a heaping mess (“Þat day doubble on þe dece watz þe douth served”),
making merry until dinner is served; leading up to this main event, all
the guests wash and seat themselves in order (“When þay had waschen
worþly, þay wenten to sete, / Þe best burne abof, as hit best semed”),
Arthur and Guinevere taking their spots on a dais covered with embroi-
dered tapestries. Many others are arranged at side tables. Before service
begins, Arthur, who is described as “sumquat childegered,” or rather
boyish, says he has a relish for some tales of adventurous exploits, to
which he is entitled as King.157 The first course is subsequently brought
out with great fanfare, the food served on silver platters covered in cloth:

Dayntés dryven þerwyth of ful dere metes,

Foysoun of þe fresche, and on so fele disches
Þat pine to fynde þe place þe peple biforne
For to sette þe sylveren þat sere sewes halden
On clothe.
Iche lede as he loved hymselue
Þer laght withouten loþe;
Ay two had disches twelve,
Good ber and bryȝt wyn boþe.

Then the dainties came duly, the dearest of treats:

The freshest of foods in the finest of ways,
All carefully crowded on cloth-covered plates.
With the finest and fairest of foods every guest
Was fed.
Each one takes what he wishes
From that splendid spread.
Each two thus take twelve dishes
And beer and wine bright red.158

The courtiers are about to dine carefree, when an unannounced guest

arrives with a challenge, as if to satisfy the King’s childish wish: the
Green Knight enters the hall, mocks the beardless youths sitting on their
benches, and offers to test their mettle. He intervenes like some living
“sotelte,” an interlude at a grand feast.159 At stake is the renown of the
Round Table, and Gawain agrees to take up the task; after a marvelous
beheading scene that might have ruined more delicate appetites, the
company returns to its former employment, enjoying “alle maner of mete
and mynstralcie boþe.”160 The table is a testing ground for a youthful
Gawain and Arthur, young as the New Year (“Ful ȝep in þat Nw Ȝere”),
who have so far acquitted themselves.161 Dining is central to the action
a year later in the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert, where Gawain has
gone looking for the Green Knight. Hautdesert is another occasion for
Gawain—the “fader of nurture”—to manifest his courtesy at table.162
He is fed soon after he arrives in his chamber, at a trestle table; all of
the various implements and culinary creations are set out and precisely
described. Because of the timing of his arrival, on a fast day, we know
that Gawain has a fish dinner.163 The next day, there is a much more
lavish spread in the hall, which almost surpasses expression (“Þer watz
mete, þer watz myrþe, þer watz much ioye / Þat for to telle þerof hit me
tene were / And to poynte hit ȝet I pyned me parauenture”).164 These
are just a few of the many references to eating, drinking, and dining
in the romance, each marking stages in the narrative development of
the poem, setting the scene for conflicts and enabling a series of action
and reaction shots. Guinevere, the Green Knight, Lady Bertilak, and
Morgan le Fay—all are introduced at one or another mess. Lady Bertilak
smothers Gawain with affection at the table to test his courtesy, and

Gawain proves himself by responding with good nurture, despite the

obvious dangers.165 His responses to such clandestine communications
at mealtime tell whether he deserves his status as a Knight of the Round
Table. His character is established there. It is easy to overlook the fact
that the table is a central character in the chivalric romance too. The
poetry is composed out of the sundry worldly properties that it finds
indispensable and fit for purpose, and without which there would not
be the same idea of human refinement or befitting behavior.166
Wynnere and Wastoure offers a lengthy ekphrasis on the feast of the
spendthrift that expresses the matter equally well, if putting into even
sharper focus the peculiar poetic quality and dramatic choreography of
the table. As in Sir Gawain, here the portrayal of delicacies is turned into
sumptuous verse, calling up an extended list of menu items, including a
boar’s head, vegetables, venison, mixed grains, pheasant, and meat pies,
and if that is not sufficient, “anothir [dish] comes aftir, / Roste with the
riche sewes [gravy] and the ryalle spyces.”167 But that is to refer to not
quite a quarter of the lines devoted to the rich man’s banquet, a delec-
table feast that is matched by lyrical and lexicographical extravagance.
The listing is a significant poetic device here, as in Sir Gawain, the verse
having assembled and assumed the form of the sequential matter that
is served at the feast—tabulating the table much as do the wordbooks
of Adam Petit Pont and Alexander Nequam. The itemization of things
is an index of the impression they make on the text as one body among
others; and ultimately, the index constitutes a textual corpus. There are
other intertextual conditions one can consider as sources of these literary
compositions, and those are the ones everyone cites. In Wynnere and
Wastoure, the spendthrift denies the poor outside his gates, a biblical
motif (based on Luke 16, Lazarus and the rich man) that gets reiterated
elsewhere in both Langland and Chaucer.168 And one could compare a
large body of literature devoted to criticizing gluttony and gourman-
dizing. But the relevant intertexts do not circulate independently in
some remote literary sphere above mundane chains of reference, for
even the most diagrammatic and exemplary text must affiliate with
substantive things. In Cleanness, a homiletic poem by the same author
who composed the better-known Sir Gawain, there is a retelling of the
parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22) and a version of Belshazzar’s
feast (Daniel 5), and they, too, compose familiar commensal patterns.

The register of succulent meats, seating order, elaborate vessels, fine

service, conviviality, amusements, and so on depend on a high degree
of realism that is rendered into exquisite verse.169 Again, the allitera-
tive poetry is partly construed and reconstructed out of the material
properties that are crafted and composed by others in the wide world.
Of course, it is not as though these things can only be rendered in al-
literative long lines or some other specific form. Not to be mistaken,
I am claiming that there are many technical ways to orient a literary
corpus (just as there is more than one way to comport the body in the
taskscape of the table), some more practical and prosaic than others. Yet
the material is a necessary condition of those formal tasks (such is the
direction of fit) and is treated as though it were essential to the devel-
opment of a medieval understanding of humanitas. Literary personae
are themselves sometimes confected out of the things at hand in the
mess: Chaucer’s Prioress is famously epitomized by her behavior at
table, while, as we have seen, the Franklin is nearly the sum of a well-
provisioned one.170
Yet realism is not the decisive result of an object-oriented text, and
mine is not an argument in favor of one literary mode over others.
Among the most abstract verbal expressions of the banquet in ancient
and medieval traditions is the allegorical feast—a banquet of cooked-
up concepts without much in the way of what we normally consider
material concretion. The Feast of Patience in Piers Plowman is a final
test case for the claims I am making about the contributions of the table,
the rearticulation of commensality, and the cultivation of character. It
comes after attempts earlier in the poem to model a Christian society
according to economic demands for food production, in the plowing of
the half-acre overseen by Piers. At this point, one might be put in mind
of Serres’s disgust with allegories at the dining table for the very reason
that they seem to dematerialize sensual life, taking the matter out of the
meal: as he says about the inaugural philosophical and religious feasts,
“What do we remember? At the symposium banquet it is allegories that
drink: comedy, tragedy, medicine. . . . They speak allegorically. This never
becomes clear until one has attended an invited banquet where each
chair represents an institution, where each guest is there to represent
politics, science, banking, the media or public administration—the
powers of the moment.”171 His initial reference harks back to Plato’s

Symposium, which Serres elsewhere subjects to withering contempt:

“They never did anything but speak, speak, speak of speaking, speak to
say that they are going to speak, talk[ing] philosophy. No referent, no
thing, no bread. . . . There was nothing to eat at this banquet. Old phi-
losophy, nouvelle cuisine.”172 Serres’s complaint is part of a larger project
meant to distinguish the actual feast from the undernourished word that
suppresses the sensual mess. On this reading, language at the table is
considered anaesthetic, just because it is so anesthetized. I am pursuing
a contrasting view that is premised on the possibility of sense-for-sense
translation even in the aesthetic domain, while recognizing the distance
traveled between any actual feast and the Feast of Patience. Langland, if
for quite different reasons, exhibits a comparable distaste for idle table
talk. In Piers Plowman, we hear of the unlearned who speak there in a
blasphemous and ill-informed manner, something Langland captures in
the vivid and grotesque image of driveling and gnawing God (they “drev-
ele at the deyes the deite to knowe / And gnawen god with gorge when
here gottes fullen”).173 But the learned are often no better. As we read later
in the poem, Conscience and Clergy meet the dreamer and lead him to
Reason, who wishes them all to dine together, and their diet consists of
too much discourse. A doctor of theology, a learned friar, and Patience
join the party. “They woschen and wypeden and wenten to the dyner.”
The friar takes the seat of honor on the dais (“The maister was maed
sitte furste as for the moste worthy”), with Reason ushering everyone
to the appropriate places, acting as a “styward of halle.” Patience and the
dreamer are seated together at a “syde-table,” as dinner companions sub-
ordinate to the erudite master. At what appears to be an academic feast,
then, Clergy calls for food and Scripture comes serving “sundry metes
monye, / Of Austyn, of Ambrose, of alle the foure evangelies, / Edentes
et bibentes que apud eos sunt, &c.” (Eating and drinking such things
as they have; Luke 10:7). The master rejects such simple nourishment
and demands “mete of more cost, mortrewes and potages,” and ends
up eating and drinking too much.174 He is full of excessive verbiage too,
holding forth in a self-serving and hypocritical manner, showing by his
declarations that he possesses only abstract and attenuated definitions
of virtue. Patience and the dreamer at the sideboard, conversely, share
a sour loaf of penance, a drink of perseverance, and a pittance cooked
by Contrition. Patience and Conscience then depart and enter into an

honest dialogue about hunger with the minstrel Activa Vita, who then
receives a wholesome paternoster from Patience.175
Leaving aside detailed analysis of fourteenth-century theological
controversies swirling around the scene, we can see much here that
seems immaterial to actually subsisting bodies, shifting the weight from
eating and drinking to mere discourse (exegesis, confession, prayer).
And it would appear that neither the vice nor the virtue figures are
immune from Serres’s critique, as it is not just the doctor whose table
manners are questionable—Patience, too, consumes scriptures and
presents mere words and not bread to a hungry man. But that is to miss
a key point about how the allegory works in the aggregate: the scriptural,
patristic, and pastoral discourses involved are configured in a dense
and dynamic textual medium that lists and enlists the sensual realia of
dais, sideboard, seating patterns, dinner guests, service, appetite and
tastes, bread and other foodstuffs, washing, and so on, to compose the
personification allegory. Moreover, creaturely need is set against clerical
abuses, on one hand, and spiritual extremism and elitism, on the other,
which are anything but abstract here. Allegory has been defined as “a
mode of communication in which intension overwhelms extension,
so that the aspect of or disposition through which an object enters the
facts is more important than the object itself.”176 The first part of the
proposition is clarifying. A reader apprehends the hypocrisy and zeal of
persons in the intensive relations that obtain between all of the available
materials. In this case, however, objects are not overshadowed by per-
sonified concepts. There is a purposeful slippage between abstract and
concrete referents—as ever in Piers Plowman, for this itself is nothing
new to remark—wherein individual persons (Will the dreamer) and
personifications (Patience) are made to sit side by side at the same table.
Likewise, virtues and vices are made intelligible by means of things and
foodstuffs, as when the doctor prefers sausages to the scriptures. And it
is here, most clearly, that Langland coordinates the matter of tables and
texts in the allegorical assemblage (“sundry metes monye, / Of Austyn,
of Ambrose, of alle the foure evangelies”), productively confounding
the distinction between one and the other. Penance is a sour loaf, and
necessarily so: a patient man is defined by his capacity to tolerate such
fare that is not to taste. The doctor’s sanctimony is driven home by the
fact that he indulges without conscience in a rich table, while the poor

go without. As one reader observes, the doctor is “really a glutton—while

the dreamer’s and Patience’s food really is penitential—the two pilgrims
really are being abstemious.” In their relations to the mess, characters
reveal different “attitudes towards scripture.”177 Moreover, some become
disaffected with clerical authority at this gathering; and Patience does
not have the last word here, either, as though her ascetic diet were the
one that Langland is finally recommending.178 Langland addresses the
problem of material need, then, as sanctioned by “natural human moral
observation of life and deed, forms of creaturely understanding which
are brought into vivid conjunction with clergie.”179 There is in Langland’s
poetry a dynamic contraction and expansion of concrete and conceptual
matters throughout these passages, a constant shifting of sense for sense
that is difficult to interpret but that leads to the conclusion that where
the text seems most empty and abstract, we are witness to extractions,
elaborations, and rearticulations of the mess. The table is set and, as
ever, becomes a formal scene of interchange: food practices are at once
discursive and dietetic, expressive and embodied, institutional and
alimentary. Sausages, bread, and wine articulate with other matters in
a textual mess. Here, of all places, there is a referent.
The biblical paternoster offered by Patience puts the reader in mind
of another, analogous but still more abstract assimilation of “our daily
bread.” Langland is alluding to the Eucharist that transforms the Last
Supper into a communal, commemorative rite, which may seem to have
finally left behind the original meal. In the sacrament, the substance
changes, but the accident remains (sensual qualities of taste, smell, feel,
and so on) in a miraculous way. But perhaps, instead of seeing the litur-
gical event as a singular change of state unlike any other, we are invited
to consider consecration as only the most extraordinary example of the
conversion of matter that takes place daily. Recall, at the very least, the
satirical manner in which it was charged that the products of the kitchen
were transubstantial. Is transubstantiation not a model that informs a
certain understanding of reference and translation elsewhere? Latour
has indeed suggested that something as routine as taking and tabulat-
ing field samples can be understood in these terms, exemplifying how
reference and translation work in scientific practice.180 In the spiritual
practices of previous ages, it was recognized that the Mass, an elevated
and consecrated form of communion, was another empirical mess. It is

a translation of the most sacred kind, but still with concrete reference;
at the altar, supplicants take that divine flesh—as a morsel—into the
physical body.181 Some had an especially keen sense of the matter. Late
in the fourteenth century, for instance, Catherine of Siena wrote of her
ardent desire to take up “this food on the table of the sweet sacrificed
Lamb,” and she further identifies God the Father as the Table, the Son
as Food, and the Holy Spirit as Servant.182 Her remarks about eating
and dining do not render them unearthly sublimations but are ways of
augmenting and intensifying a familiar kind of commensality. Feasting
is not transcended but typologized, relying on an assumed continuity
between things corporeal and incorporeal, past and present. In the Mass,
the scale and rate of change are so different as to seem far removed from
everyday food practices, for table matters are allegorized and reformatted
in a mode appropriate to a new, singular event—grain and grape having
been converted at the altar table—but perhaps they nevertheless remain
transformations of the sort we have analyzed previously in ordinary life.
Langlandian piety and poetic composition similarly depend on a con-
tinuum with everyday cooking and dining practices. Masticating food
and meditating on divinity are coterminous, as the poet suggests again
by way of a man at the feast who really has “holy writ ay in his mouth,”
unlike those who figuratively “gnawen god.”183 Ultimately, priests and
panters and poets alike allegorize bread in their respective handling of
ordinary materials and techniques, insofar as each prepares new forms of
matter by way of the intension of material extensities embodied in grain.
The temptation has long been to refer literary texts to previous tex-
tual traditions rather than considering a range of creative ontogenetic
conditions beyond written inscriptions that go to determine the rhe-
torical possibilities. There is much that can be explained by assessing a
shared stock of narrative modes and pedagogical materials, of course,
and literary historians have long had a stake in saying so, but what should
not be neglected are the extraliterary and nonhuman extractions that
inhere in them. Sometimes what matters are the propagating parts or
properties of things themselves, without which there could be no writ-
ing, no literary taste, no cultivation of character or humanitas. We may
be able to recognize only a few of the parts of the working assemblage at
any given moment, grasping little of the dense, dynamic, overdetermined
network. A speculative hypothesis has therefore been necessary to get

our analysis off the ground, and I have found it productive to assume that
poiesis is a real and recombinatory process—as empirical as medieval
cooking and eating, but perhaps also as magical as transubstantiation.
“Empiricism, both cook and cupbearer, knows more recipes than laws.”184
The working assumption is that there is some measurable continuity
between culinary, alimentary, and aesthetic acts, even sacramental ones.
They articulate with one another. The mess is not just a language game;
the situation traverses multiple sense organs. Language is a persistent
causal element of the mess nonetheless, and that is where ancient and
medieval pedagogues and poets go for repeated nourishment. Table talk
has led poets to reflect on the potential for dialogue and debate, as wit-
nessed in the aforementioned examples of Plutarch, Cicero, Macrobius,
and Dante. A table is obviously rich rhetorical material partly thanks to
the scope festive otium gives to discoursing together but also and more
specifically because it is where medieval youths first learn the power of
words as things: “With fayr speche þou may have þy wylle, / And with
þy speche þou may þe spylle [slay or waste].”185 Educated in a household
curriculum that is literary and gustatory in nature, children are taught
to be respecters not just of things but also of signs. The didactic situa-
tion of much allegory is parallel to that taken for granted in all manner
of dietaries and etiquette manuals. All this is to say that my point is
not to displace language in favor of something else that is supposedly
more solid and sensible, as though signs could not penetrate to the
very marrow. They too are organs of sense that become aspects of the
child. I have been speaking about heterogeneous lingual matters—yes,
those of the tongue in the broadest sense—where what is at stake is the
continual cultivation and communication of humanity.

I have offered what may appear to be a strongly revisionist account

of medieval cosmology, ontology, economy, and ethics. But this book
is not out to revise the past. From several vantage points (scientific,
technological, artifactual, and literary), the human has been shown to
become one intercalated and immanent form of matter among others.
Fair descriptions of the given phenomena are sufficient to draw the main
conclusions. It is true that some dominant voices continued to insist
on human particularity and relative supremacy (where humans occupy
pride of place in some “scale of nature”), but self-congratulatory asser-
tions tend to ignore the actual constructions of things within working
models, and if we do not examine them closely, we will fail to see just
how risky and messy they are. My aim has been to track various ways in
which conventional divisions do not exhaust the available ideas, images,
and forms of life (e.g., inanimate embryos, lively miniatures, dormant
tables, object-oriented literary texts), something that now more than
ever awaits a fuller recognition. Complicated ecologies underpin even
the tidiest of cosmologies. Whatever is one is manifold. My point has
been to show how matters emerge into the world through a graduated,
convoluted, and risky epigenetic process that constitutes being wherever
it is instantiated. That is why the medieval evidence still matters.
My methodology has been fundamentally historicist and materialist
then, if ever oriented toward an eventful historicity that does not come
to rest once and for all. There is consequently no need to end by includ-
ing a modernizing “bonus track,” asserting that old ideas are relevant


again. The past is ever emerging on the horizon of the present—and

the present is downstream of still surging histories. I speak of a virtual
past that eludes total capture because, empirically speaking, it contains
incipient energies and untold futures. On this account of heterochronic
history, what counts as human is and will be reconfigured all the time.
One of the ongoing tasks for historically minded scholars will be to
recover the many recessive and emergent ideas of created being that even
now extend “an invitation,” to borrow Jeffrey Cohen’s elegant phrase, “to
explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the
human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous
kind of becoming.”1 It is an invitation that the past returns again and
again. And yet the reference to monstrosity should not mislead readers
about the directions future analyses can take. While other scholars with
similar interests have focused on error, dysfunction, and deformation,
the present book has mostly been oriented around ordinary processes
of generation and growth to show how precarious and parasitic they
are. The result is an emergent, heteroclite, quasi-human body that is,
interestingly, not an abject one. Here the monstrous is reincorporated
into a view of the natural and normative order, apprehending quotidian
moments in which material configurations are not so much abnormal
or grotesque (which implies some corrupted purity) as marvelously and
diversely themselves. This is to present a fundamentally ecumenical
vision of the world (from Greek oikoumenē, referring to all the inhab-
itants), one vast enough to expand our sense of becoming to include
the apparently congruent, befitting, and adapted. Strangeness is often
found just there, an important realization, I think, about how it is in
the very grain of ordinary life that we can find knotted multiplicity.
There is no reason not to extend the analysis to many other mundane
spheres, dwelling places, or aesthetic objects, attempting to regain “the
sense of wonder that comes from riding the quest of the world’s con-
tinued birth.”2 Historical work is bound to require new assessments of
diverse meshworks and materialities outside of the household, opening
up spaces where being falls in and out of place, forms are intensive and
remissive, matter is volatile, and everything is assembled for a limited
time in unlimited configurations. We will discover new sites of morpho-
genesis even where things seem most stratified—for stratification is a
fine witness to the way lowly strata are enrolled to sustain hierarchies. It

should be apparent from the medieval evidence that creation exhibits a

fecundity that eludes our categories even as, or rather because, humans
regularly struggle to order things into micro and macro levels. What
is disclosed by means of those attempts to reproduce domestic order
is a disorderly cosmopolitical realm that possesses a deep history and
many future returns.
This page intentionally left blank

1 Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.  S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin
Books, 1961), 25 [1.6]; and for the Latin, see Augustine, Confessions:
Introduction and Text, ed. James J. O’Donnell (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1992), 5 [1.6.7].
2 Augustine, Confessions: Introduction and Text, 5–7 [1.6.7, 1.6.8, 1.6.10,
1.7.11, 1.7.12].
3 Augustine, Confessions, 223–4 [10.17].
4 Ibid., 26 [1.6].
5 Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Willis
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 21.
6 Cited in Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 64.
7 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1998), 246.
8 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Uni-
versity Press, 1993), 3.
9 Alfonso Lingis, The First Person Singular (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern
University Press, 2007), 5.
10 Alfonso Lingis, The Imperative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1998), 16.
11 See Claude Romano, Event and World (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2009), and Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude (New York: Con-
tinuum, 2010) and his Divine Inexistence, excerpted in the appendix
to Graham Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 180.


12 Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press, 2006).
13 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin
Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 198.
14 See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
15 The bibliography on these topics is immense, but for a few major state-
ments, see Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the
Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Sylvia Thrupp, The
Merchant Class of Medieval London (1300–1500) (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1948); R. H. Britnell, The Commercialization of English
Society, 1000–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993);
Thorlac Turville-Petre, England the Nation: Language, Literature, and
National Identity, 1290–1340 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996);
M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066–1307,
2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
16 Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith, ed., The Legitimacy of the Middle
Ages (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 24.
17 Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (New York:
Macmillan, 1962), 114 [5.m5].
18 Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, trans.
Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1:237.
19 Ibid., 1:588.
20 For me, the most catalyzing work in this area remains Jeffrey J. Cohen’s
Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2003). Other exemplary book-length treatments that have chal-
lenged humanist credos, by way of human–animal involvements in
particular, include Dorothy Yamamoto’s The Boundaries of the Human
in Medieval English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),
Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, 2nd
ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011), and Karl Steel’s How to Make a
Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio
State University Press, 2011).
21 My ecumenism is that of the Greek oikoumenē, referring to inhabitants
of a great oikos. Different schools of thought are taken to dwell together
or at least to neighbor one another. The apparent incompatibility of
network/process philosophies (Latour and De Landa) and object-
oriented ontology (Harman) is less impressive than their common cause
against dematerialization. For example, Harman holds that objects are

discrete and solid entities whose integrity is undermined by talk of re-

lational or processual becomings. In these matters, I defer to an eclectic
range of evidence as it comes up for discussion, entertaining more than
one possible theory of the vast world—perforce encompassing fixity and
flux, intensity and extensity, ontogeny and ontology.
22 See Myra J. Hird, Sex, Gender, and Science (New York: Palgrave Mac-
millan, 2004), 10.
23 Donna Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields (New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1976), 180.
24 For a glimpse of the exciting directions in which medieval and early
modern scholars are taking matters today, see the range of essays col-
lected in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey
Jerome Cohen (Washington, D.C.: Oliphaunt, 2012), and The Indistinct
Human in Renaissance Literature, ed. Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). The special issues of the Journal
of Narrative Theory 37, no. 2 (2010) and Exemplaria 22, no. 2 (2010)
portend further engagements with critical humanism and posthuman-
ism in historical fields, and the inaugural double issue of postmedieval:
a journal of medieval cultural studies 1, nos. 1–2 (2010) likewise took
up the question of “when did we become post/human?” For an earlier
call to engage materiality in particular, see Kellie Robertson’s “Medieval
Materialism: A Manifesto,” Exemplaria 22, no. 2 (2010): 99–118. Any
further inquiries would hardly be possible without earlier and exemplary
work on the body, sexuality, family, medicine, and material culture—
including, most recently, Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality:
An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books,
2011)—and my debts to previous scholarship will be amply evident in
the notes.
25 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5.
26 Ibid., 7.
27 Ibid.
28 Meillassoux is aggressive in his attack on correlationism from this angle.
He says that the latter must submit to an uncorrelated reality unless
willing to admit to an absurd and extreme idealism: “all we have to do
is ask the correlationist the following question: what is it that happened
4.56 billion years ago? Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?”
Ibid., 16. Moreover, correlationism of whatever brand is challenged by a
science whose temporality includes the formation of subjects including
themselves. He puts the point neatly: “To think science is to think the
status of a becoming which cannot be correlational because the correlate
is in it, rather than it being in the correlate.” Ibid., 22. As I construe this,

Meillassoux is saying that subjects issue from an evolutionary process

that is uncorrelated and on which they depend to make correlationist
29 Ibid., 62.
30 Ibid., 64.
31 Bruce Holsinger, “Object-Oriented Mythography,” minnesota review
80 (2013): 119–30. I am grateful to the author for sharing a draft of his
article prior to publication.
32 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 34.
33 Ibid., 113–14.
34 Ibid., 117–18.
35 And here a note on “Ptolemaism” is justified given the currency of the
term as a kind of shorthand still, since the particular virtues of early
geocentric models are not well understood. Medieval natural philoso-
phy knew more than one cosmological model. Martianus Capella and
William of Conches, for example, followed an ancient view that Venus
and Mercury orbited the sun, establishing a partial heliocentrism that
constitutes a complex total picture of several eccentric orbs within larger
concentric spheres, according to which individual planets traveled in
epicycles centered not on the earth. A cross-sectional diagram that shows
all spheres as perfectly concentric is a gross simplification handed down
by (medieval and modern) encyclopedias. Astronomers knew that the
several planets could not have the earth at their center without falsifying
what was then regularly observed in astronomy and admitted about the
limitations of human knowledge. See Martianus Capella and the Seven
Liberal Arts, Volume II: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, trans.
W. H. Stahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 332–33;
William of Conches, A Dialogue on Natural Philosophy (Dragmaticon
Philosophiae), trans. Italo Ronco and Matthew Curr (Notre Dame, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 63–64; and Grant, Foundations
of Modern Science, 105–7. The heavens (not just creatures of mythologi-
cal projection but observable phenomena) move in a way that needed
to be tracked carefully, and tracking erratic behavior involved ever
more minute specifications and sophisticated instrumentation. By the
fourteenth century, as I will go on to indicate, John Buridan and Nicole
Oresme were led by observation to admit that they could imagine that
the earth, not the heavens, moves in a diurnal course. Medieval science
often held working models nondogmatically and at an ironic distance,
phenomenalizing them—imagining what things looked like from dif-
ferent vantages, speculating about the real nature of things outside.
Moreover, the immense power of these models to connect and motivate

human self-critique merits further reflection, antiquated though the

models may seem.
36 Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld, “A Confession of Faith: Notes
towards a New Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37, no. 2 (2007):
37 Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers,
and the Queerness of Time (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 4.
38 Ralph R. Acampora, Corporal Compassion: Animal Ethics and Philosophy
of Body (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 4–5.
39 As observed by Gilles Deleuze, “Immanence: A Life,” in Pure Immanence
(New York: Zone Books, 2005), 30, “very small children all resemble one
another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a
smile, a gesture, a funny face—not subjective qualities. Small children,
through all their sufferings and weaknesses, are infused with an im-
manent life that is pure power and even bliss.”
40 Yet I am inspired by Daniel Tiffany’s Toy Medium: Materialism and the
Modern Lyric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Julian
Yates’s Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), both penetrating
treatments of childish objects belonging to later periods.
41 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience,
trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), 79.
42 Romano, Event and World, 80; Meillassoux, Divine Inexistence, 180, as
excerpted and translated in the appendix to Harman’s Quentin Meil-
lassoux: Philosophy in the Making.
43 Nancy, Birth to Presence, 40.
44 Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore: John
Hopkins University Press, 1982), 230.

1 Augustine, Confessions, 28 [1.7].
2 Ibid., 28 [1.7]. Augustine’s attempts to imagine how rational life emerges
from nonrational matter are equally revealing: “we see how the infant
soul, already of course the soul of a human being, has not yet begun
to use reason, and yet we already call it a rational soul.” He seems to
equivocate by calling the infant rational even if that capacity lies dor-
mant, awaiting future realization: “rational activity is stilled for the time
being.” See Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 328 [VII.10], in
On Genesis, trans. Edmund Hill and John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, N.Y.:
New City Press, 2002).

3 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop

(Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1990), 473. Cf. Caroline Walker Bynum,
The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 160.
4 Augustine, Enchiridion, trans. J. F. Shaw, in A Select Library of the Nicene
and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, first series, vol. 3, ed.
Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988), 252–53 and 265.
5 Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna (Washington, D.C.:
Catholic University of America Press, 1963), 111–12 [3.9.16]. And
see M. Anthony Hewson, Giles of Rome and the Medieval Theory of
Conception: A Study of the De formatione corporis humani in utero
(London: Athlone Press, 1975), 43 and 121; and Bynum, Resurrection
of the Body, 95.
6 Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 1204 [778b], in The Complete Works
of Aristotle: Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 1, rev. and ed. Jonathan
Barnes (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
7 Aristotle, Parts of Animals, 995 [640a1], in Complete Works, vol. 1.
8 Ibid., 996 [640b1].
9 Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the
Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London:
Routledge, 1978), 292.
10 Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Vaughn Davies (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1969), 512–14 [VII.16.2].
11 Ovid, Metamorphoses, Books IX–XV, trans. Frank Justus Miller (Cam-
bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 381 [XV.216–17];
Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, trans. Winthrop Wetherbee
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 71.
12 Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy: Verse Translation and Commentary,
Vol. 3: Purgatory, ed. and trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1996), Canto XXV.41, 52, and 72.
13 See Hewson, Giles of Rome, 77.
14 On Scotist virtuality and modal theory, see Norman Kretzmann,
Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, and Eleonore Stump, eds., Cambridge
History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle
to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100–1600 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1982), 355; William A. Frank and Allan B. Wolter,
Duns Scotus, Metaphysician (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University
Press, 1995), 163; and Thomas Williams, ed., Cambridge Companion
to Duns Scotus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 214.
Various things come to fruition thanks to the futurition of the virtual
(engendering human and nonhuman things, stones, herbs, beasts). Cf.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “An Abecedarium for the Elements,” postmedieval:

a journal of medieval cultural studies 2, no. 3 (2001): 292.
15 See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh
Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press,
1994), 156, and Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton
(London: Continuum Books, 2007), 260–67. For a gloss on his usage,
see Manuel De Landa, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (New
York: Continuum, 2002), 30–37.
16 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 100, 145, 269, 311ff.
17 Vilém Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes
(New York: Atropos Press, 2011), 49; emphasis added.
18 De Landa, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 18.
19 Ibid., 25 and 62.
20 Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality,” Collapse II (2007):
21 Quentin Meillassoux’s Divine Inexistence, 180, as excerpted and trans-
lated in the appendix to Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in
the Making.
22 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 268.
23 Santner sharply distinguishes the human from the animal in his work,
presupposing the distinction that I find to be produced in the very
processes of creaturely becoming, and so I tend to adopt the language
of “creatural existence” to describe the emergent being of many species.
Agamben defines “bare life” as a sort of back-formation of biopolitics,
“the first content of sovereign power,” whereas I wonder if the barest life
would constitute something anterior even to that formulation. See Eric
Santner, On Creaturely Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006),
26 and 38–39, and Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power
and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press, 1998), 83–85. As Nicole Shukin points out in Animal
Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2009), it has taken some time for Foucault-inspired
biopolitical analyses to develop broader formulations of the living to
include nonhuman beings and political ecologies, seeing that, for
Foucault, biopower has concerned itself with a species body and regu-
lation of human populations since the eighteenth century. See “The
Right of Death and Power over Life,” in Michel Foucault, The History
of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:
Vintage, 1978), and the first lecture in Security, Territory, Population:
Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78, trans. Graham Burchell (New
York: Picador, 2009). For some developments that have helped open up

the categories, see—besides Shukin’s excellent critical interventions—the

later work of Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford University Press, 2004), and Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The
Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2008).
24 Helen Rodnite Lemay, ed. and trans., Women’s Secrets: A Translation
of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 63.
25 Norman Ford, When Did I Begin? Conception of the Human Individual
in History, Philosophy, and Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988).
26 See Jacqueline Tasioulas, “‘Heaven and Earth in Little Space’: The Foetal
Existence of Christ in Medieval Literature and Thought,” Medium Aevum
76, no. 1 (2007): 24–48.
27 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s
Translation of De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus:
A Critical Text, vol. I, ed. M. C. Seymour (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1975–88), 298 [6.4].
28 See Lett Didier, “L’Enfance: Aetas infirma, Aetas infima,” Médiévales 15
(1988): 85–95.
29 The following discussion draws on Hewson, Giles of Rome; Joan
Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993); John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History
of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1997); William F. Maclehose, “A Tender Age”: Cultural
Anxieties over the Child in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2008), esp. the fine first chapter on
“Nurturing Danger: Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Medicine and the
Problem(s) of the Child”; Barbara A. Hanawalt, “Conception through
Infancy in Medieval English Historical and Folklore Sources,” Folklore
Forum 13 (1980): 127–57; Gordon Reginald Dunstan, ed., The Human
Embryo: Aristotle and the Arabic and European Traditions (Exeter:
University of Exeter Press, 1990); Dunstan, “The Moral Status of the
Human Embryo: A Tradition Recalled,” Journal of Medical Ethics 1
(1984): 38–44; and Ford, When Did I Begin? Recent editions of primary
sources in the areas of gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics—e.g.,
Päivi Pahta, Medieval Embryology in the Vernacular: The Case of De
Spermate (Helsinki: Helsinki Soc. Neophilol, 1998); Alexandra Barratt,
ed., The Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing: A Middle English Version
of Material Derived from the “Trotula” and Other Sources (Turnhout,
Belgium: Brepols, 2001); and Monica Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula:

An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)—also make new
critical inquiries possible.
30 Things regularly go awry in the course of nature for Aristotle: “female
offspring represent a failure in the reproductive process: either the weak-
ness of the father’s seed or the intractability of the mother’s material or
some external condition has, by default, produced a daughter.” Cadden,
Meanings of Sex Difference, 24. Even negative evidence indicates that
form and matter are naturally reciprocal and co-constitutive, qualifying
and potentially subverting an otherwise self-assured hylomorphism.
31 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 294 [vol. I, 6.2].
32 A century previous, for example, William of Conches observed that
growth is affected by complexion: “There is no human being who is
not warm and moist, but some are more so, some less so. For the first
human being was perfectly temperate, as he had equal shares of the
four qualities. . . . His descendants, therefore, born as they were from
a corrupt ancestor, have all been corrupted, and never afterward has
perfect health been found in humans.” See William of Conches, A
Dialogue, 147.
33 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, vol. 1 of The English Works of John
Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, EETS e.s. 81–2 (London: K. Paul, Trench,
Trübner, 1900–1901), Prologue 983ff.
34 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 294 [vol. I, 6. 3].
35 Ibid., 306 [vol. I, 6.12], and see 309 [6.14].
36 On the Properties of Things shares more in common with Albertus
Magnus’s De animalibus than with Giles of Rome’s De formatione corporis
humani, as the latter is intent on demolishing the dual seed theory; see
Hewson, Giles of Rome, 49, 62–69. Also see Lanfrank, Lanfrank’s “Science
of Cirurgie,” ed. Robert von Fleischhacker, EETS o.s. 102 (New York: C.
Scribner, 1894), 20–21, and Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 63, 20–26. Lanfrank
cites Galen and Avicenna, who teach that the embryo is begotten “of boþe
þe spermes of man & of womman, worchinge & suffrynge togideris.”
But “the worchinge of mannes kynde is more mytiere, & wommans
kynde more febler,” and consequently the man’s sperm contributes by
“worchinge” and the woman’s by “suffrynge.” The female in particular
is responsible for clothing the embryo with flesh, generated with the
help of menstrual blood; and the “formal vertu” of the matrix also has
a role in dividing the sperms according to their respective natures. The
evidence has been marshaled to serve different scholarly arguments:
Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to
Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990) argues for

the dominance of a one-sex model of the body, urging that a common

fluid and fungible corporeality makes all bodies potentially equivalent.
Cadden’s Meaning of Sex Differences agrees that sexed bodies are mutable
but keeps alive the competing models. On the debate, see Monica Green,
“Bodies, Gender, Health, Disease: Recent Work on Medieval Women’s
Medicine,” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3, no. 2 (2005):
37 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 295 [vol. I, 6.3].
38 Ibid., 295 [vol. I, 6.3].
39 Ibid., 298 [vol. I, 6.4]. He seems to offer a typical misogynist account of
the perils of the menstrual flux, on which see, e.g., Peggy McCracken,
The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval
Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), chapter
4; Bettina Bildhauer, Medieval Blood (Cardiff: University of Wales Press,
2006); and Sarah Alison Miller, Medieval Monstrosity and the Female
Body (New York: Routledge, 2010), esp. 77–86.
40 See “Nurturing Danger: Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Medicine
and the Problem(s) of the Child,” in MacLehose, “A Tender Age,” 1–52.
41 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 295 [vol. I, 6.3].
42 Ibid., 296 [vol. I, 6.3].
43 Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference, 103.
44 Dunstan, “Moral Status of the Human Embryo,” 40.
45 Pahta, Medieval Embryology, 210–11.
46 It happens to be earlier than the first reference in the Oxford English
Dictionary, s.v. “animation,” and is absent from the Middle English
Dictionary, which, however, does cite an early reference to “animat
vertu” (s.v. “animat”) in Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus.
47 Pahta, Medieval Embryology, 213 and see 217–19.
48 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 170.
49 Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, trans.
Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1:816–24.
50 Ibid., 2:1178.
51 Ibid., 2:1180.
52 Hewson, Giles of Rome, 182–87 and 228–30. See Cadden, Meanings of
Sex Difference, 197.
53 Obesity may result in sterility according to the “Book on the Conditions
of Women,” in Green, The Trotula, 115 and 121–23. Irregular sex posi-
tions among other illicit acts could result in a deformations or mon-
strous births, on which see Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 67 and 114; and
see Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Physical Impairment

in the High Middle Ages, c. 1100–c. 1400 (London: Routledge, 2006),

88 and 90; John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment
of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 338–39. What we now call sym-
pathetic magic implies a similar orientation; see, e.g., “Book on the
Conditions of Woman,” in Green, The Trotula, 97, where readers would
have found prescriptions for how to become pregnant (“If a woman
wishes to become pregnant, take the testicles of an uncastrated male
pig or a wild boar and dry them and let a powder be made, and let
her drink this with wine after the purgation of the menses. Then let
her cohabit with her husband and she will conceive”) and avoid preg-
nancy (“If a woman does not wish to conceive, let her carry against
her nude flesh the womb of a goat which has never had offspring”).
Similar notions lie behind the use of charms and amulets that assist in
childbirth, on which see C. F. Bühler, “Prayers and Charms in Certain
Middle English Scrolls,” Speculum 39 (1964): 270–78. Some believed
the mother’s imagination could alter the fetus, because fantasies and
desires cause humoral changes (just as, by analogy, shame causes a red
face; see Nicole Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature: A
Study of His De causis mirabilium with Critical Edition, Translation, and
Commentary, ed. and trans. Bert Hansen (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of
Mediaeval Studies, 1985), 347, and Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval
54 See Bynum, Resurrection of the Body, 125; Joyce Salisbury, The Beast
Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge,
2011), 34; Terence Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages
(Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell Press, 1995), 46–47; Karl Steel, How to
Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus:
Ohio State University), 108ff.
55 Peter Lombard, The Sentences, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical
Institute of Medieval Studies, 2007–10), book 2, d. 30, chapter 15.
56 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 139.
57 Barratt, Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing, 44–46; Pahta, Medieval
Embryology, 173–75.
58 Cf. Miller, Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body, 86–89.
59 Consider the rhetorical effect of a passage from De Spermate that di-
lates on the influence of place, position, planets, hours, and humors, as
paraphrased by Pahta in Medieval Embryology, 233–35: “If a daughter
is conceived in the hours of melancholy and the father and mother in
the hours of phlegm, to some degree she will receive the appearance of
melancholy from her father and mother, and the nature of sicknesses

will also come from those sources. If sperm is received on the right
side and the father and mother have been conceived in the hours of
phlegm, the child will have the appearance of melancholy; however, he
will have more a sanguineous appearance from his parents tempered
with phlegm. The nature of his sicknesses will derive from melancholy,
and these sicknesses will not be so acute. If conception takes place in
the hours of phlegm, the conception of the father and mother has hap-
pened in a similar hour, and the sperm is received on the left side, the
daughter will be phlegmatic and weak in nature. She will suffer from
quotidian fever, lientery, headache, ache in all her members, ache in
the loins, pain in the uterus, and so on. Some illnesses will come from
melancholy because of the closeness of phlegm. If conception takes place
in the hours of phlegm on the right side, the child will suffer from the
same illnesses, only they will be tempered by blood of choler.” Minor
differences indeed matter a great deal to human temperament.
60 Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 279.
61 Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 116.
62 Ibid., 105.
63 Ibid., 80 and 101.
64 See Hewson, Giles of Rome, 172; Thomas Aquinas, The Summa
Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English
Dominican Province (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952), part
1, Q. 76 and Q. 118.
65 Dante, Divine Comedy: Verse Translation and Commentary, Vol. 3:
Purgatory, ed. and trans. Mark Musa, vol. 3 (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1996), Canto XXV.53 and 56.
66 Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 233. On “intermedi-
ate” species, he follows Aristotle’s History of Animals, 921–23 [8.1], in
Complete Works, vol. 1.
67 Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 233.
68 Hewson, Giles of Rome, 100.
69 Oremse, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 241.
70 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 18.
71 See Sarah M. Butler, “Abortion by Assault: Violence against Pregnant
Women in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century England,” Journal of
Women’s History 17, no. 4 (2005): 9–31, and also her “Abortion Medieval
Style? Assaults on Pregnant Women in Later Medieval England,” Women’s
Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 40, no. 6 (2011): 778–99; and for a
more general account, see Riddle, Eve’s Herbs.
72 Dunstan, “Moral Status of the Human Embryo,” 39.
73 Ibid., 40.

74 Cited in Dunstan, “Moral Status of the Human Embryo,” 40; Butler,

“Abortion by Assault,” 11–12.
75 Cited in Butler, “Abortion by Assault,” 12; the French text with transla-
tion can be found in Andrew Horne, The Mirror of Justices, ed. William
Joseph Whittaker (London: B. Quaritch, 1895), 139.
76 See Francis Morgan Nichols, ed., Britton: The French Text Carefully
Revised with an English Translation, Introduction, and Notes, vol. 1
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1865), 114; and see Butler, “Abortion by
Assault,” 12.
77 See Butler, “Abortion by Assault,” 17ff.; Butler, “Abortion Medieval
Style?,” 7. Here we seem to have entered the biopolitical sphere, where
the power to take or grant life is a sovereign function of law, and mod-
ern abortion politics in particular may loom on the horizon. Yet, as we
are discovering, fetal life does not come with built-in legal or moral
determinations of personhood in the Middle Ages. Embryonic life is
considered far too dependent for that kind of secure determination,
and this may be instructive if we follow recent feminist scholarship. If
today one side argues for the autonomy or viability of the fetus, while the
other side makes claims for the autonomy and volition of the woman,
both rest their cases on post-Enlightenment notions of the rights of the
individual. As Rebecca Wilkin explains in “Descartes, Individualism,
and the Fetal Subject,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
19, no. 1 (2008): 96–127, what both sides share is a liberal individualism
that may have started out as a pro-choice position but has backfired and
been appropriated by pro-life positions. They ignore a complex web of
interdependencies, and “abortion politics will not change until prevailing
notions of personhood do” (100). Feminist scholars now recognize the
need to “recuperate the fetus,” as argued by Meredith Michaels and Lynn
Morgan, eds., Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). What needs to be resisted is what Wilkin
calls the “fetus fetish” exhibited by pro-life polemic (which typically
visualizes the fetus apart from other bodies, communities, institutions,
and ecologies that are required to support a living being). Karen Barad’s
Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement
of Matter and Meaning (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007)
makes a related point about the way fetal ultrasonography objectifies
embryonic life and encourages both “patient and practitioner to focus
exclusively on the fetus, whose moving image fills the entire screen. Such
material rearrangements both facilitate and are in part conditioned by
political discourses insisting on the autonomy and subjectivity of the
fetus” (212).

78 See Hewson, Giles of Rome, 92.

79 See Helen King, “Making a Man: Becoming Human in Early Greek
Medicine,” in Dunstan, Human Embryo, 10. And see Hippocrates,
Hippocratic Writings, trans. John Chadwick and William Neville Mann
(New York: Penguin, 1983), 326 and 341: “If you take twenty or more
eggs and place them to hatch under two or more fowls, and on each
day, starting from the second right up until the day on which the egg is
hatched, you take one egg, break it open and examine it, you will find
that everything is as I have described—making allowances of course
for the degree to which one can compare the growth of a chicken with
that of a human being.” And compare Aristotle, History of Animals, 883
[6.3, 561a], in Complete Works, vol. 1.
80 Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. William Harris
Stahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 112.
81 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 43–44.
82 Ibid., 133; for the Latin text, see Guillelmi de Conchis Dragmaticon
philosophiae, ed. Italo Ronca, Opera omnia 1, Corpus Christianorum
Continuatio Mediaevalis 152 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1997), 202
[VI, 6.9].
83 John Burrow, ed., English Verse 1300–1500 (New York: Longman, 1977),
84 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:75–76. Cf. Aristotle, History of Animals,
918–19 [7.7, 586a], in Complete Works, vol. 1.
85 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:587.
86 Ibid., 1:588.
87 Ibid., 2:891.
88 Ibid., 1:242, 1:612.
89 Ibid., 1:293.
90 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,”
in Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and
Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre
Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 41.
91 See Melvin Konner, The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion,
Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 208.
92 See, for specific examples, “On Treatments for Women,” in Green, The
Trotula, 125–27 and 159; Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 107.
93 As Aquinas puts it in Summa Theologica, part 2, Q. 10, “after birth, and
before it has the use of its free-will, [the infant] is enfolded in the care
of its parents, which is like a spiritual womb.”
94 Willene B. Clark, ed. and trans., A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-
Family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Woodbridge,
U.K.: Boydell Press, 2006), 138.

95 Green, “Bodies, Gender, Health, Disease,” 4.

96 Barbara A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience
of Childhood in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 9.
97 See Kathryn Ann Taglia, “The Cultural Construction of Childhood:
Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation,” in Women, Marriage, and
Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M.
Sheehan, C.S.B., ed. Constance M. Rousseau and Joel T. Rosenthal,
255–87 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, 1998), and Renate
Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean
Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1990).
98 Tasioulas, “Heaven and Earth in Little Space,” 30; Margaret Schaus, ed.,
Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia (New York:
Routledge, 2006), 401–3.
99 See, e.g., the reference to difficult labor in Margery Kempe, The Book of
Margery Kempe, ed. Lynn Staley (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute,
1996), 21–23.
100 Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life,”
in Hymns to the Virgin and Christ, the Parliament of Devils, and Other
Religious Poetry, EETS o.s. 24 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner,
1868), 58.
101 Florence Warren, ed., The Dance of Death, EETS, o.s. 181 (1931; repr.,
Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell and Brewer, 2000), 69–70; and see Sophie
Oosterwijk, “‘I Cam but Now, and Now I Go my Wai’: The Presentation
of the Infant in the Medieval Dans Macabre,” in Essays on Medieval
Childhood: Responses to Recent Debates, ed. Joel T. Rosenthal, 124–50
(Donington, U.K.: Shaun Tyas, 2007).
102 Beryl Rowland, ed. and trans., Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health: The
First English Gynecological Handbook (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University
Press, 1981), 122–34.
103 Barratt, Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing, 60–62; compare Rowland,
Medieval Women’s Guide to Health, 134; and see “Book on the Conditions
of Women,” in Green, The Trotula, 100–101.
104 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 291 [vol. I, 6.1].
105 Ibid., 298 [vol. I, 6.4].
106 Ibid., 298–99 [vol. I, 6.4] and 304 [6.9].
107 Luke Demaitre, “The Idea of Childhood and Childcare in Medical
Writings of the Middle Ages,” Journal of Psychohistory 4, no. 4 (1977):
108 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 299 [vol. I, 6.4].
109 Demaitre, “Idea of Childhood,” 472–73.
110 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 299 [vol. I, 6.4].

111 “Book on the Conditions of Women,” in Green, The Trotula, 107.

112 Barratt, Knowing of Woman’s Kind in Childing, 70ff.
113 Ibid., 74–76.
114 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 303 [vol. I, 6.7]; “Book on
the Conditions of Women,” in Green, The Trotula, 105 and 111.
115 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 299 [vol. I, 6.4].
116 See Karl Steel, “With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures
of the Wolf-Child of Hesse,” in Cohen, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, 9–34.
117 Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 235.
118 Ibid., 241.
119 Ibid., 243.
120 Ritchie Girvan, ed., Ratis Raving and Other Early Scots Poems on Morals,
Scottish Text Society, 3rd ser., (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood & Songs,
1939), 57 [1120–25].
121 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 2, Q. 10.
122 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:587; cf. Aristotle, History of the Animals,
921–22 [8.1], in Complete Works, vol. 1.
123 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 141–42 and cf. 26.
124 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:587.
125 T. H. White, ed. and trans., The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from
a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (Madison, Wis.: Parallel Press,
2002), 34; and compare Albertus’s account of the relative talents of the
human and the monkey in On Animals, 2:1420.
126 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:237–38, 766, and 771; 2:1058–59 and
127 William Langland, Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the
C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2010),
128 White, Book of Beasts, 9.
129 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 167.
130 Adelard of Bath, Questions on Natural Science, chapter 15, in Charles
Burnett, ed. and trans., Adelard of Bath, Conversations with His Nephew
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 121.
131 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 2:1060.
132 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 146; cf. Giorgio
Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans.
Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993).
133 Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future
of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
134 Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London, 55.

135 Hanawalt, “Conception through Infancy,” 136.

136 In that threatening interstice of time, demons could replace the child
with a changeling, depriving parents of their child forever. There were
stories about infants who were miraculously brought to life just so that
they could be baptized. Didier, “L’Enfance: Aetas infirma, Aetas in-
fima,” 87; Ronald C. Finucane, The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered
Children in Medieval Miracles (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000),
137 See Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, EETS o.s.
31 (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1868; 2nd rev. ed., 1902), 3–5.
138 MacLehose, “A Tender Age,” 81–83.
139 Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London, 46.
140 Ibid., 46–49.
141 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New
York: Routledge, 1993), 7.
142 See Lisa Baraitser’s Maternal Encounters: An Ethic of Interruption (New
York: Routledge, 2009), 39–40.
143 Taglia, “Cultural Construction of Childhood,” 258.
144 John Mirk, Festial: Edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II,
vol. 2, ed. Susan Powell, EETS o.s. 335 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2011), 260. See Taglia, “Cultural Construction of Childhood,” 258–59;
Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born, 26; and for a comprehensive
account, see Christopher Daniell, Death and Burial in Medieval England,
1066–1550 (London: Routledge, 1998).
145 Judith Perryman, ed., The King of Tars (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1980),
89 and 94.
146 Jane Gilbert, “Unnatural Mothers and Monstrous Children in The King
of Tars and Sir Gowther,” in Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late
Medieval Britain, ed. Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-
Browne (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000), 2:333–34.
147 Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of
Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 230.
148 Taglia, “Cultural Construction of Childhood,” 275.
149 Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 2, Q. 10.
150 See Daniel T. Kline, “Textuality, Subjectivity, and Violence: Theorizing
the Figure of the Child in Middle English Literature,” Essays in Medieval
Studies 12 (1995): 23–38.
151 Christopher Fynsk, Infant Figures (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Press, 2000), 50.
152 A commonplace found, e.g., in Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of
Isidore of Seville, trans. and ed. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach,

and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge, 2006), 241 [XI.ii.9], and in William of

Conches, A Dialogue, 141.
153 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 291 [vol. I, 6.1].
154 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 140.
155 Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 107.
156 Demaitre, “Idea of Childhood,” 470; William of Conches, A Dialogue,
157 “Book on the Conditions of Women,” in Green, The Trotula, 109.
158 See Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe, 76.
159 Ibid., 174.
160 Warren, Dance of Death, 70.
161 See Didier, “L’Enfance: Aetas infirma, Aetas infima,” 86.
162 Ibid., 85.
163 Ibid., 95.
164 Phillippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life,
trans. Robert Baldick (New York: Vintage Books, 1962).
165 Maclehose, “A Tender Age,” 70.
166 See, e.g., Siegfried Wenzel, Latin Sermon Collections from Later Medieval
England: Orthodox Preaching in the Age of Wyclif (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005), 184; Moshe Barasch, “The Departing Soul: The
Long Life of a Medieval Creation,” Artibus et Historiae 26, no. 52 (2005):
167 Langland, Piers Plowman, XII.56.
168 Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Prioress’s Tale 481–87, in The Riverside
Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
169 The idea of imitatio infantium comes from Ebrard of Béthune, who
cites 1 Peter 2, as discussed in Maclehose, “A Tender Age,” 77. Positive
images of children indicate, as Maclehose says, that they embodied in
their simplicity and holy innocence “ideals to which all Christians should
have aspired.” It is worth noting that the scriptures are ambivalent: such
an ideal goes against Paul’s condescending remarks about infants (1
Corinthians 3:2) and the necessity of putting away the things of the child
(1 Corinthians 13:11 and 14:20) but is quite in line with what Christ
says about the necessity of becoming a child in the spirit (Matthew
19:14 and 21:16) and what Peter writes about becoming newborn and
imbibing pure spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2)—the latter heard every first
Sunday after Easter in the Introit, “Quasi modo geniti infantes.”
170 Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of
the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982),
121–22. Those who chose the ascetic life were sometimes thought to
realize a return to the womb. On the medieval anchorhold as womblike

enclosure of female religious, see John C. Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler,

eds., Medieval Mothering (New York: Garland, 1999), 145 and 157ff.
171 See Jonathan P. Parry’s work on how death is treated as another form of
birth in Hinduism in Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., Death
and the Regeneration of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1982), 80–81. See Section 8, “Absorption into the Chthonic Mother,”
in Theresa M. Krier, Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity
to Shakespeare, 202–33 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).
172 Pardoner’s Tale 729–31, in The Riverside Chaucer. And see Krier’s Birth
Passages, 211.
173 Thomas Usk, The Testament of Love, ed. R. Allen Shoaf (Kalamazoo,
Mich.: Medieval Institute, 1998), 82–83 [1.375–77].
174 Ibid., 226 [2.1386–87].
175 Ibid., 53 [Prol. 87].
176 I have written about this ethical exposure at greater length in Ethics and
Eventfulness in Middle English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,
2009), 53–61.
177 Usk, Testament of Love, 237 [3.117–20].
178 James L. Miller, Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression
(Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 300.
179 Pearl, 161 and 483, in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness,
Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Malcolm Andrew and
Ronald Waldron, rev. ed. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).
180 In the line following the reference to “a faunt,” she is somehow also “A
mayden of menske, ful debonere,” in Pearl, 161–62. For a discussion
of her age in the poem, see Kim M. Phillips, Medieval Maidens: Young
Women and Gender in England, 1270–1540 (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2003), 43ff.
181 As Peter Lombard set out in The Sentences, book 2, d. 30, chapter 15:
“A child who dies soon after birth will rise again in that stature which it
would have had if it had lived until the age of thirty and had not suffered
any defect of body.” Cf. Bynum, Resurrection of the Body, 77 and 126.
182 Cf. Agamben, Infancy and History, 92; Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of
the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
1995), 66–71.
183 Ibid., 99–100 and 133–36.
184 Ibid., 569–72 and 590.
185 Cf. Daniel T. Kline, “Resisting the Father in Pearl,” in Translating Desire
in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, ed. Heather Hayton and Craig
Berry (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies,

186 Pearl, 718.

187 Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe
Nemo, trans. R. Cohen (Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press,
1985), 70.
188 On the alchemical terms and their relation to Pearl, see Jonathan Hughes,
The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England: Plantagenet Kings
and the Search for the Philosopher’s Stone (Continuum: London, 2012),
43–44 and 85–87.
189 Dante, Divine Comedy: Verse Translation and Commentary, Vol. 5:
Paradise, Canto I.71–73.
190 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human
Sciences (New York: Routledge, 1989), 19–28.
191 C. S. F. Burnett, “The Planets and the Development of the Embryo,” in
Human Embryo, 95ff.
192 Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 145.
193 Pahta, Medieval Embryology, 199–201.
194 Ibid., 251.
195 Grant, Foundations of Modern Science, 109.
196 Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 224.
197 Gower, Confessio Amantis, vol. 1, Prologue 945–46 and 957.
198 Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (New York:
Macmillan, 1962), 2.m8.
199 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 1386 [vol. II, 19.14].
200 Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 271 [XIII.i.1].
201 Gower, Confessio Amantis, 1:31–22 [Prol. 954–58, 974–90].
202 Ibid., 1:30–31 [Prol. 913–44].
203 Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 2010), 28.
204 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-
Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 177.
205 John H. Miller and Scott E. Page, Complex Adaptive Systems: An
Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press, 2007), 227.
206 Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” New
Literary History 41 (2010): 480–81.
207 Ibid., 471–90.
208 See Myrto Garani, Empedocles Redivivus: Poetry and Analogy in Lucretius
(New York: Psychology Press, 2007), 71ff.; George Perrigo Conger,
Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1922).
209 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 88; Bernardus Silvestris,

Cosmographia, ed. Peter Dronke (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 118; cf. Plato,
Timaeus, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Complete Works, 1238 [33b–34a].
210 See P. Dronke, Fabula: Explorations into the Uses of Myth in Medieval
Platonism (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 79–99 and Appendix A.
211 Macrobius, The Saturnalia, 513.
212 See Ana Pairet, “Recasting the Metamorphoses in Fourteenth-Century
France: The Challenges of the Ovide moralisé,” in Ovid in the Middle
Ages, ed. James G. Clark, Frank T. Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 92.
213 William Caxton, The Middle English Text of Caxton’s Ovid, ed. Diana
Rumrich (Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 2011), 60–61.
214 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1243.
215 Dronke, Fabula, 85–86.
216 Caxton, Caxton’s Ovid, 61.
217 See William Caxton, The Myrour of the Worlde (Westminster: Printed
by William Caxton, 1481), STC (2nd ed.)/24762. It is a prose transla-
tion of the thirteenth-century L’image du monde, whose original is the
twelfth-century Latin Imago Mundi.
218 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, 93ff.
219 Hildegard of Bingen, Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete
English Translation of Her Classic Work of Health and Healing, trans.
Priscilla Throop (Rochester, N.Y.: Healing Arts Press, 1998), 86.
220 Cf. Hughes, Rise of Alchemy, 43–44.
221 Aristophanes, The Birds, trans. David Barrett and Alan Sommerstein
(New York: Penguin, 2003), 177–78 [ll. 692, 694–95].
222 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 25 and 30.
223 Ibid., 17.
224 Ibid., 15.
225 Ibid., 30.
226 Ibid., 27.
227 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 38.
228 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 133.
229 Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 95.
230 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 67. On the nearly synonymous
hyle and silva, see Brian Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century:
A Study of Bernard Silvester (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
1972), 97ff.
231 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 70–71.
232 Ibid., 71.
233 Ibid., 68.

234 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2–3 [I.9]. Cf. Stock, Myth and Science, 71.
235 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 68.
236 Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, 58.
237 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 70.
238 Ibid., 73–75.
239 Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, 30.
240 Bernardus Silvestris, The Cosmographia, 67.
241 Ibid., 69.
242 Ibid., 89.
243 Ibid., 104.
244 Ibid., 112.
245 Ibid., 119.
246 Ibid., 125.
247 Ibid., 126.
248 Gower, Confessio Amantis, 2:239 [VII.214–22].
249 On Gower’s wordplay and the various senses of form here, see James
Simpson, Sciences and the Self in Medieval Poetry: Alan of Lille’s
Anticlaudianus and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2–5.
250 Kellie Robertson, “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto,” Exemplaria 22,
no. 2 (2010): 111–12.
251 See John David North, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and
Cosmology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 651; Helge
Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two
Theories of the Universe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
1996), 114; George Gamow, The Creation of the Universe (New York:
Viking, 1952), 54.
252 See Marcelo Gleiser, The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the
Big Bang (New York: Dutton, 1997), and Petar Grujic, “Cosmology and
Mythology: A Case Study,” European Journal of Science and Theology 3,
no. 3 (2007): 37–51.
253 As John Buridan wrote, “If things were the way this view posits, ev-
erything in the heavens would appear to us just as it does now.” And
as Oresme, for his part, noted, “It is apparent, then, how one cannot
demonstrate by any experience whatever that the heavens are moved
with daily movement, because . . . if any observer is in the heavens and
he sees the earth clearly, it (the earth) would seem to be moved.” Cited
in The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages, ed. Richard C. Dales
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973), 129 and 137–38.
Some observable celestial movements, others well knew, seemed to
require that the earth was not at the center. For examples of partial

heliocentrism, see Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, Volume
II: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, trans. W. H. Stahl (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 332–33; William of Conches, A
Dialogue, 105–7. On the alchemists’ “heliocentric vision of the universe,”
see Hughes, Rise of Alchemy, 57.
254 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New
York: Bantam, 2010), 41–42: “Although it is not uncommon for people
to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong,” Stephen Hawking and
Leonard Mlodinow write, “that is not true . . . for our observations of
the heavens can be explained by assuming either the earth or the sun
to be at rest.” They go on to say, “The real advantage of the Copernican
system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler in the
frame of reference in which the sun is at rest.”
255 Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’” 478.
256 Chaucer, A Treatise on the Astrolabe 663, in The Riverside Chaucer.
257 Ibid., 662. On Chaucer’s translation theory and practice, see Andrew
Cole, “Chaucer’s English Lesson,” Speculum 77, no. 4 (2002): 1128–67.
258 See Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western
Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 106–8.
259 But compare Seth Lerer, “Chaucer’s Sons,” University of Toronto Quarterly
73, no. 3 (2004): 906–16, who extends the late medieval and early mod-
ern notion of “father Chaucer” teaching his “sons.”

1 For descriptions, see Hazel Forsyth and Geoff Egan, eds., Toys, Trifles,
and Trinkets: Base-Metal Miniatures from London 1200 to 1800 (London:
Unicorn, 2005), 144. Also see Geoff Egan’s “Base-Metal Toys,” Datasheet
10 (Oxford: Finds Research Group, 1988); “Children’s Pasttimes in Past
Time—Medieval Toys Found in the British Isles,” in Material Culture in
Medieval Europe: Papers of the Medieval Europe Brugge 1997 Conference,
vol. 7, ed. G. de Boe and F. Verhaeghe (Bruges, Belgium: Zellik, 1997),
413–21; and Playthings from the Past: Lead Alloy Miniature Artefacts,
c.1300–1800 (London: Jonathan Horne, 1996).
2 Three comparable equestrian figurines survive in much poorer shape;
others in the collection were made by different methods (i.e., folded
after being molded, and flat rather than hollow). Compare small-scale
horsemen and related figurines in the form of ivory chessmen, cop-
per aquamaniles, tin pilgrim souvenirs, and pewter broaches surviv-
ing from the period; one might also think of descriptions of banquet
tables set with “sotelties,” edible concoctions such as miniature castles

or tableaux of knights and ladies. There is also a large amount of re-

lief sculpture on seals, dishes, badges, and misericords featuring small
horsemen. For a range of artifacts, see Jonathan Alexander and Paul
Binksi, eds., Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200–1400
(London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1987), 252–57. On badges, see Brian
Spencer, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges (London: Stationery
Office, 1998), 296–301. Compare the miniature carvings of St. George
and the Dragon, one in alabaster dated circa 1400–1420 and another in
oak dated mid- to late fifteenth century and once adorning a gate into
Coventry; see Richard Marks and Paul Williamson, eds., Gothic: Art for
England 1400–1547 (London: V & A, 2003), 218 and 397. Equestrian
miniature toys in wood, bronze, and ceramic have been found on the
Continent, on which see Karl Gröber, Kinderspielzeug aus alter Zeit
(Hamburg, Germany: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1928), who provides
images of thirteenth-century knights and horses in clay (Plate 21) and
fifteenth-century wheeled bronze horsemen (Plate 29).
3 Middle English Dictionary, s.v. “toi.”
4 Forsyth and Egan date the piece circa 1300 in Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets,
144, yet on the Museum of London website, the range is extended circa
5 On nostalgia for the mounted warrior, see James G. Patterson, “The
Myth of the Mounted Knight,” in Misconceptions of the Middle Ages, ed.
Stephen J. Harris and Bryon Lee Grigsby (New York: Routledge, 2008),
6 On the limitations of critique, see Bruno Latour’s various works, includ-
ing We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social, 88–93; also
see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), xiv–xv. Isabelle Stengers speaks of
the “monotonous refrain ‘it is only a construction’” in Cosmopolitics I,
trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2010), 38; and Graham Harman says, “The model of intelligence as cri-
tique and opposition has entered its phase of decadence,” in his Guerrilla
Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago:
Open Court, 2005), 236.
7 Lingis, The Imperative, 69.
8 Cf. Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans.
Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud (New York: Fordham University
Press, 2002), 112, and Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of
Givenness, trans. Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Press, 2002), 225ff.
9 Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 21.

10 Marion, In Excess, elucidates by noting that the “object itself changes.

This is evidently true for all natural living things (which rise up ripen,
and come undone); for every produced object (technical, or industrial),
which also deploys a history: the time of its conception, its fabrication,
its commercial exploitation (the time of fashion, of need, of demand,
and so on), finally that of its functioning (its ‘lifespan’), and then, in the
end, of its destruction (in being recycled or deteriorating). The object
therefore only ever gives itself in evolutionary lived experiences and
cannot, strictly speaking, ever affect me twice in the same way. So, my
look can never be drowned twice in the same lived experience of an
object” (106).
11 Here and throughout the chapter, the notion of “affordance” harks back
to J. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 129: “an affordance is neither an objective
property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affor-
dance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us
to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment
and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An
affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.”
12 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the
Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993),
13 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 79.
14 Though “the wealthy have the best miniatures,” observes Sarah L. Higley,
“A Taste for Shrinking: Movie Miniatures and the Unreal City,” Camera
Obscura 47, no. 16 (2001): 2.
15 One miniature automaton seems to have had an unusual influence
over spectators and staff at the Smithsonian, according to remarks by
Elizabeth King, “Perpetual Devotion: A Sixteenth-Century Machine
That Prays,” in Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of
Artificial Life, ed. Jessica Riskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2007), 274.
16 The idea of withdrawal is fundamental to the object-oriented ontology of
Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects
(Chicago: Open Court, 2002), esp. 18ff. and 128. It is a point to which
I return later in this book.
17 See Mary Floyd-Wilson, “English Mettle,” in Reading the Early Modern
Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster,
Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Sabiha Ahmad, “Technologies of Mettle:
The Acting Self and the Early Modern English Culture of Metals,” PhD
diss., University of Michigan, 2007.

18 See Lois Rostow Kuznets, When Toys Come Alive: Narratives of Ani-
mation, Metamorphosis, and Development (New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1994).
19 Harman, Tool-Being, 92.
20 Agamben, Infancy and History, 79.
21 Play has often been cited as one of the characteristics that divide the
higher animals (Huizinga’s homo ludens) from the lower. Recent play
theory informing my analysis considers that play is common among
vertebrates; that play and games may just as likely be distracting and
maladaptive as constructive activities; that instead of rehearsing cultural
norms, play creates and modifies culture; and that the values exhibited
in and through playthings are not always those of the adult world. See
Brian Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture (New York: Gardner Press, 1986),
and The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1997); Anthony D. Pellegrini, ed., The Future of Play Theory: A
Multidisciplinary Inquiry into the Contributions of Brian Sutton-Smith
(New York: SUNY Press, 1995); Olivia N. Saracho and Bernard Spodek,
eds., Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood Education (New
York: SUNY Press, 1998); and Stuart Reifel, ed., Play and Culture Studies:
Vol. 3. Theory in Context and Out (Westport, Conn.: Ablex, 2001). As
Sutton-Smith is fond of pointing out in his books, playing is often sim-
ply a preparation for future playing, an intensive activity with no end
but further involvement. Nor are playthings everywhere reducible to
symbolic or social goods. Just as play is paradoxical in its relation to the
world (“both of its own society and beyond it at the same time,” argues
Sutton-Smith), so the plaything stands outside of the usual run of things.
See Toys as Culture, 252. Some will detect a running argument here
with social theories that rationalize all activity, rendering playful acts
and objects functional. Because nonhuman playthings are nonhuman,
it should not be surprising that they can escape human systems even
as they appear to serve them.
22 See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and
Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 97–107.
23 On etymology, see the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “miniature,”
and John Mack, The Art of Small Things (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 2007), 20–21; and see Yates, Error, Misuse, Failure, 47.
24 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages,
Medieval Cultures 17 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1999), 100.
25 Walter Benjamin, “The Cultural History of Toys,” in Walter Benjamin:
Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland,

and Gary Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005),

26 See examples in Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 180. The
Museum of London has miniature drinking vessels that are the “first
evidence for mass-produced base-metal toys in this country, and are
among the very earliest base-metal miniatures of their kind in the world”
(275). Other small-scale versions of household items that survive include
an array of domestic appurtenances: cradles, tongs, mirrors, chests,
chairs, trays, ewers, and birdcages. The evidence suggests that girls
played indoors with the utensils and other household objects, imita-
tions of things that would have been found in a dowry. On dowries, see
Barbara Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of
Childhood in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 212ff.
On how the division of labor played out, see Hanawalt, “Conception
through Infancy in Medieval English Historical and Folklore Sources,”
143: “Girls were involved in accidents playing with pots or cauldrons
(27 percent of their accidents at age two and three) while only 14 per-
cent of the boys were. The girls were obviously imitating their mothers’
work. In the accidents which occurred outside the home the little boys
predominated. The boys apparently followed their fathers in their tasks
outside the home.” For other remarks on the way “childhood, whatever
its magical delights, also constitutes a training ground for later ideo-
logical beliefs,” see the fascinating essay by Patricia C. Ingham, “Little
Nothings: The Squire’s Tale and the Ambition of Gadgets,” Studies in the
Age of Chaucer 31 (2009): 56.
27 Giles of Rome, The Governance of Kings and Princes: John Trevisa’s
Middle English Translation of the De Regimine Principum of Aegidius
Romanus, ed. David Fowler, Charles Briggs, and Paul Remley (London:
Routledge, 1997), 234 [II.II.XIII].
28 Albertus Magnus, On Animals, 1:509–12; Thomas Aquinas, Summa
Theologica, vol. 2, part 2.2, Q. 168, A. 1.
29 See Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: Uni-
versity of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 168–75; Kathleen Kelly, “Malory’s
Body Chivalric,” Arthuriana 6, no. 4 (1996): 52–71; Jeremy J. Citrome,
“Bodies That Splatter: Surgery, Chivalry, and the Body in the Practica
of John Arderne,” Exemplaria 13, no. 1 (2001): 137–72.
30 Giles of Rome, Governance of Kings and Princes, 234 [II.II.XIII].
31 Ibid., 242 [II.II.XVI].
32 Geoffoi de Charny, A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry, ed. Richard W.
Kaeper, trans. Espeth Kennedy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 2005), 56.

33 Accordingly, we encounter this nice touch in one contemporary poem:

“In riche Arthures halle, / The barne playes at þe balle.” From Ralph
Hanna III, ed., The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn: An Edition
Based on Bodleian Library MS. Douce 324 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester
University Press, 1974), 309–10.
34 Giles of Rome, Governance of Kings and Princes, 239–43 [II.II.XVI].
35 See Nicholas Orme, “Child’s Play in Medieval England,” History Today
51, no. 10 (2001): 52; Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval
England,” Past and Present no. 148 (1995): 62–63; Orme, Medieval
Children (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001), 174; and
Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the English Kings
and Aristocracy 1066–1530 (New York: Methuen, 1984), 180–84. For an
example of a fourteenth-century miniature sword, see Alexander and
Binksi, Age of Chivalry, 264.
36 Orme, Medieval Children, 174.
37 Pictured in Gröber, Kinderspielzeug, Plate 22. See Herrad of Hohenbourg,
Hortus deliciarum, 2 vols., ed. Rosalie Green, Michael Evans, Christine
Bischoff, and Michael Curschmann (London: Warburg Institute, 1979).
38 See, e.g., the Ango Book of Hours or Livre des enfants of circa 1500 (fol.
137 in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS NAL 392) and a late-fifteenth-
century copy of Danse macabre (see fol. 7 in Ann Turkey Harrison, ed.,
The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque nationale
[Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994]).
39 Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry, 184; Orme, “Culture of Children,”
40 Orme, “Culture of Children,” 191.
41 Orme, “Children’s Play,” 52; Orme, “Culture of Children,” 62–63; Orme,
Medieval Children, 181–83.
42 Ritchie Girvan, ed., Ratis Raving and Other Early Scots Poems on Morals,
Scottish Text Society, 3rd ser., 57–58 [ll. 1128–41]. See Orme, From
Childhood to Chivalry, 35–36; Orme, “Culture of Children”; Orme,
Medieval Children, 175–76.
43 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s
Translation of De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus: A
Critical Text, ed. M. C. Seymour (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975–88),
1:554 [10.2]. 
44 Butler, Bodies That Matter, 49.
45 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 1:553–54 [10.2].
46 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1966), 23.
47 Stewart, On Longing, 68.

48 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Noonday

Press, 1972), 54–55.
49 Benjamin, “Cultural History of Toys,” 114.
50 Benjamin invites us to stare the “hideous features of commodity capital
in the face” in the dolls of toyshops, dolls that possess a “hellish exuber-
ance,” naturalistic features that are symptoms of the malaise of moder-
nity. He prefers the “transparent nature of the manufacturing process”
in periods when “the genuine and self-evident simplicity of toys was a
matter of technology, not formalist considerations.” See “Toys and Play:
Marginal Notes on a Monumental Work,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected
Writings, vol. 2, part 2, 119.
51 Herbert L. Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2004), 19: “Overt materiality is a distinguishing characteristic of
medieval art.”
52 As indicated by a recent exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in
Baltimore called “Shrunken Treasures: Miniaturization in Books and
Art” (curated by Ben Tilghman). Stewart, On Longing, describes micro-
graphia this way: “Minute writing is emblematic of craft and discipline;
while the materiality of the product is diminished, the labor involved
multiplies, and so does the significance of the total object” (38).
53 See Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 288–90.
54 Much of the information that follows is gathered from Charles Welch,
History of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers of the City of London,
2 vols. (London: East and Blades, 1902); John Hatcher, English Tin
Production and Trade before 1550 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973);
Derek Keene, “Metalworking in Medieval London: An Historical
Survey,” Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society 30 (1996): 95–101;
Ronald F. Homer, “The Medieval Pewterers of London, c. 1190–1457,”
Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 36
(1985): 137–63; Homer, “Tin, Lead, and Pewter,” in English Medieval
Industries: Craftsmen, Techniques, Products, ed. John Blair and Nigel
Ramsey, 57–80 (London: Hambledon Press, 1991); and Ian Blanchard,
Mining, Metallurgy, and Minting in the Middle Ages: Vol. 3. Continuing
Afro-European Supremacy, 1250–1450 (Munich, Germany: F. Steiner,
55 Because of rich tin deposits in Cornwall and Devon, England developed
a near-monopoly on tin mining that lasted well beyond the Middle Ages.
The abundant ore fed a large manufacturing sector in London, where a
confluence of metal and manual labor helped enable the city to establish
a distinct civic identity. As Caroline M. Barron says in London in the
Later Middle Ages: Government and People 1200–1500 (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2004), 70, “the most distinctive industry in medieval

London was that of metalworking both by virtue of the numbers of men
engaged in the metal crafts and for the number of organized groupings
of specialist workers.”
56 Transcribed in Welch, History of the Worshipful Company, 2–4, though
I have introduced some light punctuation and omitted extraneous capi-
tals. For a translation of the Latin, see 22 Edward III 1348 letter book F,
fol. 155, in H. T. Riley, Memorials of London Life (London: Longmans,
1868), 242.
57 Apparently pewterers imitated the goldsmiths in the formulation of their
charter. See Ronald F. Homer, “The Pewterers and the Goldsmiths and
Their Metals—A Family Resemblance,” Journal of the Pewter Society 13
(2000): 10–12.
58 Heather Swanson, “The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in
Late Medieval English Towns,” Past and Present 121, no. 1 (1988): 39.
“Guild regulations give a distorted view of urban industry, with three
issues in particular being misrepresented. First, there is the work-force
that fell outside the guild system; secondly, there is the question of the
demarcation of work between guilds; thirdly, there is the significance
of the system of apprenticeship. One half of the work-force was almost
wholly neglected by guild regulations: the women who get a fleeting
reference occasionally and who rarely appear as masters. . . . In the metal
industry in York, for example, Marjorie Kirkby and Ellen Cooper both
worked as pinners, the former as a piece-worker, the latter as the owner
of a shop. Agnes Hetche, daughter of a York armourer, was left all her
father’s tools and materials for the making of chain mail, whereas her
brother was left the instruments for the making of plate armour. Likewise
in the casting of non-ferrous metals, Margaret Soureby, widow of a
founder, took over her husband’s business, as did the widow of a London
founder, Joan Hille.”
59 Keene, “Metalworking in Medieval London,” 97.
60 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 55.
61 Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval
Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1961), 47.
62 Chaucer, Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale 856, in The Riverside Chaucer.
63 Theophilus, The Various Arts, trans. C. R. Dodwell (London: Nelson,
64 Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 52. See also J. D. Muhly,
“Sources of Tin and the Beginnings of Bronze Metallurgy,” American
Journal of Archaeology 89, no. 2 (1985): 275–91.

65 Modern analysis confirms the existence of varying qualities of pewter,

and history records that twenty-three pots and twenty saltcellars were
seized in 1350 from John de Hilton because “the greater part of the metal
in them being lead . . . to the deceit of the people and to the disgrace of
the whole trade.” See Homer, “Medieval Pewterers of London,” 142, and
Welch, History of the Worshipful Company, 7.
66 See the chapter on conflicted companies in Marion Turner, Chaucerian
Conflict: Languages of Antagonism in Late Fourteenth-Century London
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 127ff.
67 As Lingis says in The Imperative, 84, “the serviceability of their natural
forms and the reliability of their material natures are discovered in us-
age. A farmer does not build up the fertility of his land and build up by
assembling raw material and imposing a wilful form on them, but by
protecting the topsoil and caring for the cattle that are born and grow
of themselves.”
68 For what follows, I draw on Jonathan Hughes, Rise of Alchemy in
Fourteenth-Century England: Plantagenet Kings and the Search for the
Philosopher’s Stone (London: Continuum, 2012); Andrea de Pascalis,
Alchemy, the Golden Art: The Secrets of the Oldest Enigma (Rome:
Gremese, 1995); William Royall Newman, ed. and trans., The Summa
Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber: A Critical Edition, Translation, and Study
(Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991); Virginia Heines, trans., Libellus de
alchimia ascribed to Albertus Magnus (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1958); Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, trans. Dorothy Wyckoff
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967); E. J. Holmyard and D. C. Mandeville,
eds. and trans., Avicennae de Congelatione et Conglutinatione Lapidum,
Being Sections of the Kitab Al-Shifa (Paris: P. Guethner, 1927); Edward
Grant, ed., A Source Book in Medieval Science (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1974), 569–614; and Glick, “Mineralogy,”
in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, ed.
Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey, and Faith Wallis (New York:
Routledge, 2005), 349–40.
69 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, vol. 2 of The English Works of John
Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, EETS e.s. 81–2 (London: K. Paul, Trench,
Trübner, 1900–1901), 4.2487–90.
70 Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, 200.
71 Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York:
Zone Books, 1997).
72 Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, 169 and 196.
73 Heines, Libellus de alchimia, 8.
74 Ibid., 9.

75 Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, 172.

76 Heines, Libellus de alchimia, 8. And see Åsa Boholm, “How to Make
a Stone Give Birth to Itself: Reproduction and Auto-reproduction in
Medieval and Renaissance Alchemy,” in Coming into Existence: Birth and
Metaphors of Birth, ed. Göran Aijmer, 115–53 (Gothenburg, Sweden:
Institute for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, 1992). If any of
this sounds too anthropomorphic, it is worth recalling that the tin “cry”
or “shriek” (something actually caused by the friction of crystals when tin
is bent) was thought of as the delayed reaction to stresses undergone dur-
ing metallogeny. Albertus compares the “stutter” of tin to that of a man
who can speak some words and not others. See Book of Minerals, 187.
77 William Royall Newman, “The Philosophers’ Egg: Theory and Practice
in the Alchemy of Roger Bacon,” Micrologus 3 (1995): 75–101; Hughes,
The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England, 43–45.
78 Gower, Confessio Amantis, 4.2560–64.
79 See de Pascalis, Alchemy, 104–5; Boholm, “How to Make a Stone Give
Birth to Itself,” 115–53; Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible: The
Origins and Structures of Alchemy (Chicago: Chicago University Press,
1978), 8–9.
80 Albertus Magnus, whose account of generation is sexually dimorphic,
with Sulfur the Father (representing semen) mixing with Mercury the
Mother (menstruum) to produce minerals, shows that the masculine
formative virtue is buffeted by so many contingent factors that it is dif-
ficult to see how dualism is to be sustained. Other texts assign different
sex characteristics to mercury (male or female), on which see Boholm,
“How to Make a Stone Give Birth to Itself,” 123–24 and 126–27. On
the typical “cross-attribution of traits,” see the remarks of Joan Cadden
in Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science,
and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 208. It
was long understood that sulfur and mercury would themselves be
combined in such a way as to result in the intersex philosopher’s stone
(the so-called alchemical androgyne). Albertus himself speaks of the
“hermaphrodite” in Book of Minerals, 204–7. See further Hughes, Rise
of Alchemy, 56; de Pascalis, Alchemy, 56 and 60; Barbara Newman,
God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 237–39; Leah
DeVun, “The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in
Premodern Europe,” Journal of the History of Ideas 69, no. 2 (2008):
193–218; Cynthea Masson, “Queer Copulations and the Pursuit of
Divine Conjunction in Two Middle English Alchemical Poems,” in
Intersections of Sexuality and the Divine in Medieval Culture: The Word

Made Flesh, ed. Susannah Chewning, 37–47 (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate,

81 See Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2006).
82 Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XIX.xix.4; cf. XIII.iii.1–3.
83 Hughes, Rise of Alchemy, 56; Newman, God and the Goddesses, 234–44.
84 Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125, no. 2 (2010): 273–82.
Cf. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 411; Bennett, Vibrant
Matter, 56.
85 Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open
Humanities Press, 2011), 68ff.
86 See Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, 37–38.
87 Speaking of the relation to animals in particular, Susan Crane concurs in
“Chivalry and the Pre/Postmodern,” postmedieval: a journal of medieval
cultural studies 2 (2011): 70, that “cross-species contact threatens the
knight with bestial abasement.” But she avers that the threat is not so
great that a man cannot depend on his horse to elevate him above the
animal. The situation of horse and rider can also be glossed by way of
“isopraxis”: as ethologist and equestrian Jean-Claude Barrey explains,
“talented riders behave and move like horses. They have learned to
act in a horse-like fashion, which may explain how horses may be so
well attuned to their humans, and how mere thought from one may
simultaneously induce the other to move. Human bodies have been
transformed by and into a horse’s body.” See Vinciane Despret, “The
Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis,” Body and Society
10 (2004): 115; Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet, Posthumanities
3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 229. As Horse
argues in his own voice in John Lydgate’s Debate of the Horse, Goose,
and Sheep, the animal is “savacion to many a worthi knyht.” Horse
claims a knight is worthless without his horse: “Withouten hors spere
swerde, no sheld / Miht litel a-vaile for to holde a feeld.” Lydgate, “The
Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” in The Minor Poems of John
Lydgate, Part II: Secular Poems, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, EETS
o.s. 192 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), 42 and 69–70. On the
ecological dependencies involved, see Jeremy Withers, “The Ecology
of Late Medieval Warfare in Lydgate’s Debate of the Horse, Goose, and
Sheep,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 18, no.
1 (2011): 104–22.
88 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “toy.”
89 Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1962), 2.

90 Ibid., 38.
91 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 399.
92 Crane, “Chivalry and the Pre/Postmodern,” 78.
93 Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals, 169.
94 See, e.g., William of Conches, A Dialogue, 27 and 184n20.
95 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 352.
96 Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (New
York: Routledge, 2004), 164.
97 Chaucer, “The Former Age” 28–29, 20, and 49, in The Riverside Chaucer.
98 M. C. B. Dawes, ed., Register of Edward the Black Prince, pt. 2, Duchy of
Cornwall, 1351–65 (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1930–33), 41.
99 And who to this day agitate for constitutional rights equal to that of
Wales and Scotland. See “The Cornish Stannery Parliament,” http:// See also G.  R. Lewis, The
Stannaries: A Study of the Medieval Tin Miners of Cornwall and Devon
(Cambridge: Bradford Barton, 1908), esp. 86–87 on the jurisdiction of
the Duke of Cornwall.
100 Dawes, Register of Edward the Black Prince, 18. He moderated his re-
sponse given economic hardship, levying fines relative to the value of
101 Ibid., 132; and see Richard Barber, Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine:
A Biography of the Black Prince (New York: Allen Lane, 1978), 132.
102 As noted, e.g., in the Black Prince’s register for February 1351: “inas-
much as the watercourse which used to run to the mills is practically
destroyed, and the fishery ruined, by certain tinworkers who work in
the moors of Glyn and Redwith, it is necessary to acquire a watercourse
through the meadows of Jeoce Marchant and Richard Page, burgesses
of Lostwitheil.” In another case, Abraham Tennere of Cornwall was
imprisoned in 1357 “because of some tin-workings begun by him which
are a nuisance to the prince.” And then, in 1361, John de Treeures wrote
in complaint to the duke’s council about how “fully sixty tinners have
entered on his demesne and soil, which bears wheat, barley, oats, hay
and peas, and is as good and fair as any soil in Cornewaille.” The min-
ers diverted streams and inundated arable land, “so that, by reason of
the great current of water they have obtained and the steep slope of the
land there, all the land where they come will go back to open moor, and
nothing will remain of all that good land except great stones and gravel.”
Even church land was abused. The parson of the church of St. Lagone
wrote in petition that “the tin-miners in Cornewaille have come and
mined and dug within the churchyard of the said church, to the great
damage of the petitioner and destruction of the trees and turbary of the

church.” See Dawes, Register of Edward the Black Prince, 26, 110, 178,
and 122, respectively. Also see Homer, “Tin, Lead, and Pewter,” 59, and
the “continual complaints” of landowners in Lewis, The Stannaries, 4–5.
103 See, e.g., the 1315, 1348, 1376, 1391, and 1394 Parliaments in the CD-
ROM edition of C. Given-Wilson, P. Brand, A. Curry, R. E. Horrox,
G. Martin, W. M. Ormrod, and J. R. S. Phillips, The Parliamentary
Rolls of Medieval England, 1275–1504 (Leicester, U.K.: Scholarly Digital
Editions, 2005).
104 Richard sold off many of his estates, escaping the burden of collecting
rents and taxes. See John Hatcher, Rural Economy and Society in the
Duchy of Cornwall, 1300–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1970), esp. 137–39.
105 Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things
Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 995.
106 Graham Harman, “On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno, and
Radical Philosophy,” in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism
and Realism, ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, 21–40
(Melbourne, Australia:, 2011).
107 Bryant, Democracy of Objects, 107.
108 Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture, 251.
109 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, vi and 20.
110 Lingis, The Imperative, 91.
111 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 32.
112 Silvia Benso, The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics (Albany:
SUNY Press, 2000), 137.
113 Harman, Tool-Being, 241; Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics, 130–41.
114 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 26 and 165.
115 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 119 [vol. 1, 3.21].
116 Ibid., 119–20 [vol. 1, 3.21].
117 Objects communicate to organs of sense, but that does not mean they
are always for us. They are not identical to the susceptible body. Nancy,
in The Birth to Presence, 174, talks about the “whatever” of the thing.
118 Serres, The Parasite, 226. Compare the “taskscape” as described by Tim
Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling,
and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000), 195, which goes to inform my
analysis of cooking and dining later.
119 Lingis, The Imperative, 55.
120 Peter K. Smith, Children and Play: Understanding Children’s Worlds
(Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 32; Sutton-Smith, Toys as
Culture, 107–8.

121 Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture, 78.

122 Orme, “Culture of Children,” 54.
123 Middle English Dictionary, s.v. “wantoun.” Cf. Frederick J. Furnivall, ed.,
Caxton’s Book of Curtesye (London: N. Trübner, 1868), 4.
124 Benjamin, “Cultural History of Toys,” 115.
125 Agamben, Infancy and History, 79.
126 Ibid., 80.
127 Ibid., 81.
128 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 126.
129 Sally Crawford, “The Archaeology of Play Things: Theorising a Toy
Stage in the ‘Biography’ of Objects,” Childhood in the Past 2 (2009): 63.
130 Romano, Event and World, 46.
131 Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 25.
132 Crawford, “Archaeology of Play Things,” 63.
133 Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, 68.
134 Ibid., 71.
135 On the “costs” of play, see Smith, Children and Play, 64.
136 See Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages
(New York: Cornell University Press, 1982).
137 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 2.2, Q. 168, A. 2.
138 Giles of Rome, Governance of Kings and Princes, 234 [II.II.XIII].
139 Ibid., 240 [II.II.XVI].
140 Any real enjoyment should be reserved for the summum bonum that
is God. By contrast, if we “enjoy those things which should be used,
our course will be impeded and sometimes deflected,” and we become
“shackled by an inferior love”: Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans.
D. W. Robertson Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 9. See the entry
on “uti/frui” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan
Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdsman, 1999); and see also
Elena Lombardi, The Syntax of Desire: Language and Love in Augustine,
the Modistae, Dante (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 34–36.
For a “medieval history” of enjoyment, see Jessica Rosenfeld, Ethics and
Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry: Love after Aristotle (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14–44, and for the reception of
these ideas in England, see Arthur Stephen McGrade, “Enjoyment at
Oxford after Ockham: Philosophy, Psychology, and the Love of God,”
in From Ockham to Wyclif, ed. Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks, 63–88
(Oxford: Ecclesiastical History Society, 1987).
141 See Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 2.1, Q. 2, A. 6; Q. 4, A. 2; Q. 11, A. 3;
and Q. 31, A. 5. Also Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book I: The Mystery
of the Trinity, trans. Giulio Solano (Toronto: University of Toronto

Press, 2007). Peter Lombard’s Sentences (which formed the basis of the
medieval university curriculum) is oriented around the themes of use
and enjoyment, as explained by Marcia Colish, Peter Lombard, vol. 1
(Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993), 78.
142 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 9. The original Latin runs “Nam usus
illicitus, abusus potius vel abusio nominandus est,” in D. A. B. Caillau,
ed., Sancti Augustini Hippomensis Episcopi Opera Omnia, Tomus IV
(Paris: Apud Paul Mellier, 1842), 420.
143 Abusio is a Latin translation of Greek catachresis in Quintilian, Institutio
Oratoria, vol. 3, trans. H. E. Butler (London: William Heinemann, 1922),
8.6.34–35. Augustine defines catachresis later in On Christian Doctrine,
103, and he discusses the trope elsewhere in De dialectica; the figure
also crops up in later medieval handbooks.
144 Serres, The Parasite, 80.
145 Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture, 234. He cautions against idealizing play-
things. Many are distracting, and some may be dangerous. A kind of
adult nostalgia so often renders play and playthings virtuous today,
whereas in the past—following Augustine—they would be considered
powerful in more than one way, even quite vitiating.
146 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 20.
147 Cf. Kjetil Steinsholt and Elin Traasdahl, “The Concept of Play in Hans-
Georg Gadamer’s Hermeneutics: An Educational Approach,” in Reifel,
Play and Culture Studies, 73–96.
148 Benso, Face of Things, 114.
149 Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture, 253.
150 Cf. Benso, Face of Things, 75ff.
151 Walter Benjamin, “Old Toys,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol.
2, part 2, 101.
152 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1994), 161.
153 It stretches from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (about a cop who
becomes obsessive about making miniature chests) to the HBO series
The Wire (in which Detective Lester Freamon intricately crafts dollhouse
furniture). See Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained
Death (New York: Monacelli Press, 2004), for a series of photographs
of miniature dollhouses that replicate real crime scenes, furnishing
models that are to this day employed to train homicide investigators.
Constructed by Frances Glessner Lee in the 1930s and 1940s, they are
intended to teach detectives how to capture the bare facts (i.e., “truth
in a nutshell”), and they apparently inspired a series of episodes about
a Miniature Killer on CSI (season 7, aired 2006–7).

154 Benjamin, “Old Toys,” 100. The documentary Marwencol (dir. Jeff
Malmberg, 2010) shows one man’s obsession with re-creating traumatic
experiences to triumph over them.
155 Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 150.
156 Delicate and vulnerable, the smallest kinds may be easily ruined or
lost, as the British miniaturist Willard Wigan experienced when he
accidentally inhaled one of his microscopic Alices of Wonderland, a
sculpture tiny enough to sit within the eye of a needle; see the video
report on “The Microscopic Art of Willard Wigan,” Wall Street Journal,
September 29, 2009,
157 Chaucer, “A Treatise on the Astrolabe” 662, in The Riverside Chaucer.
158 Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 271 [XIII.i.2].
159 Higley, “A Taste for Shrinking,” 23.
160 Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 201 and 213. See the doll
dishes in Gröber, Kinderspielzeug, Plate 25.
161 Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” Standard Edition XVII (1955): 236.
162 Stewart, On Longing, 61. Later, in a passage not anticipated by these
earlier comments, she acknowledges, “The observer is offered a tran-
scendent and simultaneous view of the miniature, yet is trapped outside
the possibility of a lived reality of the miniature” (66).
163 Heidegger, Being and Time, 97–98.
164 Steven Millhauser, “The Fascination of the Miniature,” Grand Street 2,
no. 4 (1983): 135.
165 Lévi-Strauss, Savage Mind, 23.
166 Freud, “The Uncanny,” 237.
167 Alton J. DeLong, “Phenomenological Space-Time: Towards an Expe-
riential Relativity,” Science 213, no. 4508 (1981): 681–83; C. Thomas
Mitchell and Roy Davis, “The Perception of Time in Scale Model En-
vironments,” Perception 16 (1987): 5–16.
168 Peter Zäch and Peter Brugger, “Subjective Time in Near and Far
Representational Space,” Cognitive Behavioral Neurology 21 (2008):
169 Mitchell and Davis, “Perception of Time,” 13.
170 Stewart, On Longing, 65.
171 Millhauser, “Fascination of the Miniature,” 129.
172 William of Conches, A Dialogue, 122.
173 Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 180.
174 Ibid., 246.
175 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 110 [vol. 1, 3.17].
176 Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Marvels of Nature, 197 [3.64].
177 Ibid., 197–98 [3.68–73].

178 Cf. Benso’s Face of Things, 115.

179 Mack, Art of Small Things, 5.
180 Merleau-Ponty, Primacy of Perception, 5; Lingis, The Imperative, 18.
181 Benjamin, “Toys and Play,” 121.
182 For some of the best accounts, see Kenneth Gross, Puppet: An Essay on
Uncanny Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Victoria
Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 2003); Tzachi Zamir, “Puppets,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 3 (2010):
386–409; and Steve Tillis, Towards an Aesthetics of the Puppet: Puppetry
as a Theatrical Art (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992).
183 Plato mentions that Daedalus created self-moving statues that would
run away if not fixed in place, as noted in Stewart, On Longing, 56.
There is the golem of Jewish lore, an animated and potentially violent
clay homunculus, on which see Moshe Idel, Golem: Jewish Magical and
Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (Albany: SUNY Press,
1990), and Sarah L. Higley, “Alien Intellect and the Roboticization of
the Scientist,” Camera Obscura 40–41 (1997): 131–62.
184 For examples of devotional dolls, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian
Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York:
Zone Books, 2011), 65 and Figures 4, 8, and 11; Ulinka Rublack,
“Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Domincan
Covents,” Gender and History 6, no. 1 (1994): 37–57; the chapter on
“Holy Dolls” in Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual
in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1985); on puppets, see Henryk Jurkowski, A History
of European Puppetry: From Its Origins to the End of the 19th Century
(Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 64ff. A wooden infant
Jesus belonging to the fourteenth-century Bavarian nun and visionary
Margaretha von Ebner is telling. She treasured an effigy of the Christ
child that she would adorn and cradle and describes how it made noise
and moved of its own accord; her meditations consist of dialogues with
the child. In chapter 30 of The Book of Margery Kempe, we read that
in Italy, Margery met a certain woman who carried about an “ymage”
(i.e., a statuette of the infant Jesus), which was distributed among “wor-
shepful wyfys lappys,” encouraging a type of behavior that bears a faint
similarity to the way Chaucer’s popet is to be embraced by women. The
Italian housewives “wold puttyn schirtys ther upon and kyssyn it as thei
it had ben God hymselfe,” playing out scenes that moved Margery to
sob in sympathy. Her response is consonant with much later medieval
piety that emphasized the visible and corporeal godhead, attending to
the infant Jesus in real or imagined crèche scenes. Clearly a miniature

figurine, like any incarnate deity, violates expectations in this context

too. For the infancy of Christ was always the paradox of God becoming
improbably small, beginning life on earth as the least of men—an inhu-
man infans. As an effigy, the Christ child doll may exhibit a profound
passivity that recalls the Incarnation and Passion. See Kempe, Book of
Margery Kempe, 83–85.
185 See George Speaight, The History of the English Puppet Theatre (New
York: J. de Graff, 1955), 53. As John W. Robinson observes in “On
the Evidence for Puppets in Late Medieval England,” Theatre Survey
14 (1973): 112–17, there is not much surviving evidence of puppets
and puppetry in medieval England. In the thirteenth-century court of
Castille, by contrast, a whole class of performers who handled animals
and puppets were known as cazurros, and hand puppets appeared at
around that time in courts in Europe, according to Jurkowski, A History
of European Puppetry, 55.
186 See Geoff Egan et al., The Medieval Household: Daily Living c.1150–
c.1450 (London: Museum of London/Stationery Office, 1998), 281–82;
Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 64 and 141–43; and Egan,
“Children’s Pastimes,” 414.
187 On the infamous horned hat (pileum cornutum) that became an icono-
graphical marker of ethnic and religious difference, see Debra Higgs
Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval
Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), 105–6 and 137.
188 Forsyth and Egan, in Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, suggest that the Jewish
puppet could have been employed as Judas Iscariot in a religious puppet
play. Speaking more generally after the style of Žižek, we can say the fig-
ure epitomizes the Jew as “effectively the objet petit a of the Gentiles: what
is ‘in the Gentiles more than the Gentiles themselves,’ not another subject
that I encounter in front of me but an alien, a foreigner, within me.” See
Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical
Materialism (London: Verso, 2012), 707. It is a physical instantiation
of the empty “conceptual Jew” that stains the Gentile and whose excess
matter is realized in the hollow form of the puppet. On the familiar
figure of the simulated Jew, generated in medieval England after the
1290 Expulsion, see Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew: Conversion and
Embodiment in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2006), and Sylvia Tomasch, “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual
Jew,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 243–60. Also compare Ingham, “Little
Nothings,” 53–56.
189 Galen as cited in Jurkowski, A History of European Puppetry, 44–45. And

see Aristotle, Movement of Animals, 1092 [701a], in Complete Works,

vol. 1.
190 Aristotle, Movement of Animals, 1092 [701a], in Complete Works, vol.
1. For Aristotle, what distinguishes the puppet from the human person
is the sensation and imagination that produces movement from within,
but we may rather insist on how dependent sensation and imagination
are on movements outside of the body.
191 Max Adorno and Theodor W. Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment:
Philosophical Fragments (London: Verso, 1997), 184.
192 Forsyth and Egan, Toys, Trifles, and Trinkets, 143.
193 For other examples of mechanical birds, see Scott Lightsey, Manmade
Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2007).
194 Bruno Latour, “Factures/Fractures: From the Concept of Network to the
Concept of Attachment,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 36 (1999):
195 Latour, Reassembling the Social, 215–16.
196 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “poppet”; Middle English Dictionary, s.v.
“popet.” As for etymology, the OED remains uncertain, except to note
that it comes from Latin pupa (girl, doll). I will sustain the ambiguity as
long as possible, exploiting various senses, and allowing senses to drift
as they might have done in their own day.
197 Chaucer, Prologue to Sir Thopas 695–704, in The Riverside Chaucer.
198 Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3254, in The Riverside Chaucer.
199 Chaucer, Prologue to Sir Thopas 706, in The Riverside Chaucer.
200 Alan T. Gaylord, “The ‘Miracle’ of Sir Thopas,” Studies in the Age of
Chaucer 6 (1984): 67.
201 Chaucer, Prologue to Sir Thopas 694–98, in The Riverside Chaucer.
202 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, 184 [vol. 1, 5.7]. Puppet and
pupil share the same derivation, on which see Oxford English Dictionary,
s.v. “pupil” and “poppet.”
203 Chaucer, Prologue to Sir Thopas 703–4, in The Riverside Chaucer.
204 See Kevin LaGrandeur, “Do Medieval and Renaissance Androids Presage
the Posthuman?” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 12, no. 3
(2010): 1–10, and his “The Talking Brass Head as a Symbol of Dangerous
Knowledge in Friar Bacon and in Alphonsus, King of Aragon,” English
Studies 80, no. 5 (1999): 408–22. On Grosseteste, see Gower, Confessio
Amantis, 4.234–38.
205 Chaucer, Franklin’s Tale 1189–1208 and Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale 751
and 842, in The Riverside Chaucer. See V. A. Kolve, “Rocky Shores and
Pleasure Gardens: Poetry vs. Magic in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale,” in

Poetics: Theory and Practice in Medieval English Literature, ed. Piero

Bointani and Ana Torti (Cambridge: D.  S. Brewer, 1991), 165–95.
Compare with the House of Fame, in which we find arrayed among
“alle maner of mynstralles / And gestiours that tellen tales” a variety of
magicians, sorcerers, and necromancers, including one named English
magician who could shrink a windmill to the size of a walnut shell; see
Chaucer, House of Fame 1197–98 and 1277–81, in The Riverside Chaucer.
206 As Newman observes in God and the Goddesses, activities of the alche-
mists “yielded not scientific advances but a new literary genre. Indeed,
medieval alchemical writings represent a unique historical instance of
literary criticism fueled by laboratory science” (235).
207 To get another handle on the idea, one could well imagine a modified
Turing test according to which literary characters and not just computers
could show that they possess “machine intelligence.” If verbal matter can
imitate mind well enough so that readers forget the difference between
human and nonhuman beings, then the fictional work “passes.” Alan
Turning based his original test of artificial intelligence on what he called
the Imitation Game, in which participants do in fact take on characters
(e.g., a man pretends to be a woman). See Gualtiero Piccinini, “Turing’s
Rules for the Imitation Game,” Minds and Machines 10, no. 4 (2000):
208 Lee Patterson, Temporal Circumstances: Form and History in the
Canterbury Tales (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 103–4.
209 Ann S. Haskell, “Sir Thopas: The Puppet’s Puppet,” The Chaucer Review
9, no. 3 (1975): 253–61.
210 Chaucer, Prologue to Sir Thopas 711, in The Riverside Chaucer.
211 See E. R. Truitt, “‘Trei poëte, saged dotors, qui mout sorent di nigro-
mance’: Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French
Literature,” Configurations 12, no. 2 (2004): 177 and 188–89, where
she surveys French romances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
to find miniature acrobats (Roman de Troie), golden children (Le voy-
age de Charlenmagne), automaton tomb effigies (Le conte de Floire et
Blancheflor), golden and copper guards (Roman d’Alexandre), and cop-
per knights, whom Lancelot must overcome (Lancelot do lac). Many
metal people are associated with necromancy, but their composition
is also familiarly “described in the artisanal language of smithing and
metalworking: ‘molded’ (façonez), ‘gilded’ (dorez), and above all, ‘cast
in metal’ (tresgetez).” Also see Truitt’s “Fictions of Life and Death:
Tomb Automata in Medieval Romance,” postmedieval 1 (2010): 194–98.
Automaton saints, angels, devils, and human effigies were known and
employed in many other contexts. See Alfred James Douglas Bruce,

“Human Automata in Classical Tradition and Medieval Romance,”

Modern Philology 10 (1912–13), 511–26; Alfred Chapuis and Edouard
Gélis, Le monde des automates: Étude historique et technique (Paris:
E. Gélis, Neuchâtel (Suisse), and A. Chapuis, 1928); Alfred Chapuis and
Edmond Droz, Automata: A Historical and Technological Study, trans.
Alec Reid (Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Griffon, 1958); Merriam Sherwood,
“Magic and Mechanics in Medieval Fiction,” Studies in Philology 44,
no. 4 (1947): 567–92; Jessica Riskin, ed., Genesis Redux: Essays on the
History and Philosophy of Artificial Life (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2007); and Wendy Beth Hyman, ed., The Automaton in English
Renaissance Literature (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2011).
212 See Ingham, “Little Nothings,” 72.
213 Walter Scheps, “Sir Thopas: The Bourgeois Knight, the Minstrel and the
Critics,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 11 (1966): 35. Thopas’s most-
ly six-line stanzas contrast with the longer verse units of Sir Launfal
and the generally diffuse descriptions those longer stanzas permit.
Another and equally conspicuous kind of literary compression hap-
pens in relation to larger units of the poem as it progresses: the first
fit (eighteen stanzas) is halved in the second (nine stanzas) and halved
again in the third (four and a half stanzas)—until the Host cuts the
narrative short. As John Burrow observes in “Sir Thopas: An Agony
in Three Fits,” Review of English Studies 22 (1971): 54–58, “these ra-
tios are formal, mathematical expressions of a principle of progressive
214 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 840–42, in The Riverside Chaucer.
215 Ibid., 836.
216 Ibid., 756 and 760.
217 Haskell, “Sir Thopas,” 254. Chaucer, Sir Thopas 727 and 730, in The
Riverside Chaucer.
218 Thopas is customarily a woman’s name, on which see Joanne A. Char-
bonneau, “Sir Thopas,” in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury
Tales, ed. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel (Woodbridge, U.K.:
D. S. Brewer, 2005), 2:655.
219 Cohen, Of Giants, 113.
220 See E. S. Kooper, “Inverted Images in Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas,”
Studia Neophilologica 56 (1984): 147–54.
221 Haskell, “Sir Thopas,” 255. Chaucer, Sir Thopas 774, in The Riverside
222 Charbonneau, “Sir Thopas,” 694.
223 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 904, in The Riverside Chaucer.
224 Haskell, “Sir Thopas,” 255–56.

225 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 775–76, in The Riverside Chaucer.

226 See “Child’s Play” in Robert Louis Stevenson, R. L. Stevenson on Fiction,
ed. Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999),
227 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 735, in The Riverside Chaucer.
228 Of the thirty-six nonce words in the tale, a significant proportion of
them—including aketoun (a padded or quilted leather vest), cordewayne
(Cordovan leather), jambeaux lake (linen), mazelyn (maple drinking
bowl), quyrboilly (molded leather), rewel boon (ivory), syklatoun (silken),
and wonger (pillow)—allude to specialized manufacture, bourgeois
domesticity, and things traded far and wide.
229 Scheps, “Sir Thopas,” 40. For comparable references to exotic materi-
als and manufacture, see the excerpts in Charbonneau, “Sir Thopas,”
230 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 720, in The Riverside Chaucer. Flanders occupies a
special place in the medieval English imaginary, signifying cross-channel
traffic in raw materials and luxury goods, indicative of mutual economic
dependencies, even as it represented an abject realm that is neither
here (England) nor there (France or Italy). Possessing few resources,
Flemish industries turned out desirable finished goods: the Merchant’s
“Flaundryssh bever hat” (General Prologue 272) suggests a fashion for
Flemish goods in England at least among well-to-do merchants and, of
course, is meant to point to the promiscuous international trade net-
works in which merchants were invested. The Wife of Bath’s industry
(“Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt / She passed hem of Ypres
and of Gaunt”; General Prologue 447–48) also indicates how much the
English measured themselves against Flanders. The English distanced
themselves from the Flemish nonetheless, despite or rather because of
the intimate cross-channel connections: in Wallace’s memorable phrase,
“Flemish and English were as peas in a pod: retarded, west Germanic,
country cousins in the kingdom of the French.” The satire of the Tale
of Sir Thopas depends on the idea that Flanders stood only for the
“imitation of nobility in the land of the non-noble.” Chaucer’s Squire’s
involvement in the military devastation of the region (for “he hadde
been somtyme in chyvachie / In Flaundres”; General Prologue 85–86) is
particularly galling for this reason. See David Wallace, Premodern Places:
Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell,
2004), 99–100. Thopas’s swearing by ale and bread only further domes-
ticates him (the Flemish were notable brewers and had a large appetite
for imported grains).
231 Derek Brewer, “The Arming of the Warrior in European Literature and

Chaucer,” in Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives: Essays Presented

to Paul E. Beichner, C.S.C., ed. Edward Vasta and Zacharias P. Thundy
(Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 221.
232 Brewer, “Arming of the Warrior,” 238.
233 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 864, in The Riverside Chaucer. See Jerome Mandel,
“‘Jewes Werk’ in Sir Thopas,” in Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts,
Meanings, ed. Sheila Delany (New York: Routledge, 2002), 65.
234 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 724, in The Riverside Chaucer.
235 See Allen C. Koretsky, “Dangerous Innocence: Chaucer’s Prioress and
Her Tale,” in Jewish Presences in English Literature, ed. Derek Cohen and
Deborah Heller, 10–24 (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University
Press, 1990).
236 Certainly the Tale of Sir Thopas is intimately aware of the Prioress.
Among the most striking echoes is the fact that Thopas bears a helmet
topped with “lilie flour” (907), to match his otherwise blank “cote-
armour / As whit as is a lilye flour” (866–87), suggesting pious devotion
to Mary. The Prioress had promised to sing “Of thee [Mary] and of the
lylye flour” (461). On such similarities, see Adrienne Williams Boyarin,
Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in the
Marian Legends (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010), 157.
237 Chaucer, Prioress’s Tale 503, 495, 516, and 536, in The Riverside Chaucer.
238 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 830, in The Riverside Chaucer.
239 Charbonneau, “Sir Thopas,” 649.
240 Haskell, “Sir Thopas,” 253. And see Gaylord, “‘Miracle’ of Sir Thopas,”
70–78. For the comparison specimens, see Sir Thopas 897–903, in The
Riverside Chaucer.
241 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western
Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1953), 136.
242 The artifice is intensified in the page layout of almost half of the extant
manuscripts, which exhibits what has been called “graphic tail-rhyme.”
That is, the verse form is diagrammed on the page in such a way as to
draw attention, bathetically and with graphic obviousness, to technique
and to a clear program. See Rhiannon Purdie, “The Implications of
Manuscript Layout in Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas,” Forum for Modern
Language Studies 41, no. 3 (2005): 263–74.
243 See Heidegger, Being and Time, 97–107.
244 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 790, in The Riverside Chaucer.
245 Shannon Gayk, “‘To wondre upon this thyng’: Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale,”
Exemplaria 22, no. 2 (2010): 139.
246 Gaylord, “‘Miracle’ of Sir Thopas,” 66.

247 Patterson, Temporal Circumstances, 100.

248 Ibid., 103.
249 Ibid., 105.
250 Jennifer Fraser, “Dante/Fante: Embryology in Purgatory and Paradise,”
in Miller, Dante and the Unorthodox, 299–300.
251 On the topos, see Rita Copeland, Pedagogy, Intellectuals, and Dissent
in the Later Middle Ages: Lollardy and Ideas of Learning (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78.
252 It is notable that, in the climactic passage at the end, the almost random
assortment is brought together in a way that makes sense possibly only
within the mind of Usk: “Ryght so a jewel betokeneth a gemme and that
is a stone vertuous or els a perle: Margarite a woman betokeneth grace,
lernyng, or wisdom of God, or els holy church.” See Usk, Testament of
Love, 305 [3.1122–24].
253 Ibid., 51 [Prol. 60–63].
254 Chaucer, Sir Thopas 937, in The Riverside Chaucer.

1 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s
Translation of De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus: A
Critical Text, ed. M. C. Seymour (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975–88),
2:1056–57 [17.162].
2 Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-
Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43 (2012): 199.
3 See Julian Munby, “Wood,” in English Medieval Industries: Craftsmen,
Techniques, Products, ed. John Blair and Nigel Ramsey, 379–405 (Lon-
don: Hambledon Press, 1991); Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly, Med-
ieval Furniture: Plans and Instructions for Historical Reproduction
(Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1999).
4 On the variety of medieval tables, see Penelope Eames, Furniture in
England, France, and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth
Century (London: Furniture History Society, 1977); Lt. Col. Dervieu, “La
Table et Le Couvert Du Repas,” Bulletins Monumentales (1922): 387–414;
Simon Jervis, “The Round Table as Furniture,” in King Arthur’s Round
Table, ed. Martin Biddle (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2000), 31–57;
A. C. Wright, Medieval Furniture (Borough of Southend-on-Sea, U.K.:
Museums Service, 1976); Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and
Woodwork (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1989).
5 Arendt, The Human Condition, 153.
6 As cited in Lisa Cooper, “Bed, Boat, and Beyond: Fictional Furnishings
in ‘La Queste del Saint Graal,’” Arthuriana 15, no. 3 (2005): 31.

7 See the chapter on banquet imagery in Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His
World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1984), 278ff., and the excellent study of courtly and uncourtly manners
in Sarah Gordon, Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature (West
Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007).
8 Bartholomaeus, On the Properties of Things, vol. I, 329–30 [6.22].
9 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “mess,” based on Latin mittere, “to send,”
cognate with “message.” A mess can be a portion of food, a mealtime
gathering, a place where food is served, a confused jumble or hotchpotch,
or nonsense. Cf. Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, 20–21, who invokes the
conceptual “mess” of John Law.
10 See Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds., Food and Eating in
Medieval Europe (London: Hambledon, 1998); Terence Scully, The Art
of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 1997); Bridget
Ann Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (University
Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1978); Henisch, The Medieval Cook
(Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2009); Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A.
Clark, eds., Medieval Conduct (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2001); Sharon Wells, “Manners Maketh Man: Living, Dining, and
Becoming a Man in Later Middle Ages,” in Rites of Passage: Cultures of
Transition in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Nicola F. McDonald and W. M.
Ormrod, 67–81 (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell and Brewer, 2004); Caroline
Walker Bynum, Holy Fast and Holy Feast: The Religious Significance
of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1987); Salisbury, Beast Within, 44; John Block Friedman, The Monstrous
Races in Medieval Art and Thought (New York: Syracuse University
Press, 2000), 26ff.; Claudine Fabre-Vassas, The Singular Beast: Jews,
Christians, and the Pig, trans. Carol Volk (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1997); and Dianne M. Bazell, “Strife among the Table-Fellows:
Conflicting Attitudes of Early and Medieval Christians towards the
Eating of Meat,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 1
(1997): 73–99.
11 Norbert Elias, The History of Manners: Vol. 1, The Civilizing Process,
trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 53ff.
12 Ibid., 82.
13 See Claire Sponsler, Drama and Resistance: Bodies, Goods, and Thea-
tricality in Late Medieval England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1997), 53, and her “Eating Lessons: Lydgate’s ‘Dietary’ and
Consumer Conduct,” in Ashley and Clark, Medieval Conduct, 1–22.
14 Stephanie Trigg, “Learning to Live,” in Middle English: Oxford Twenty-
First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm, 459–75 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2007).

15 See Mark Addison Amos, “‘For Manners Make Man’: Bourdieu, de

Certeau, and the Common Appropriation of Noble Manners in the
Book of Courtesy,” in Ashley and Clark, Medieval Conduct, 23–48, and
Anna Dronzek, “Gendered Theories of Education in Fifteenth-Century
Conduct Books,” in ibid., 150–51; Lynn Staley, Languages of Power in the
Age of Richard II (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,
2005), 268ff.; Myra J. Seaman, “Late-Medieval Conduct Literature,”
in The History of British Women’s Writing, 700–1500, ed. Liz Herbert
McAvoy and Diane Watt, 121–30 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
A range of household literature promulgated strategies for maintaining
domestic order and forming duty-bound subjects under patriarchy, and
as Staley shows, the French made especially good use of such manuals,
including Le livre du Chevalier, which was eventually translated into
English by Caxton as The Book of the Knight of the Tower. Lessons in
courtesy and piety, urging simplicity and restraint in all dealings, consti-
tute a program of moral education that was a chief means of regulating
wives and daughters. Eve, for example, is cited as a weak-willed woman
who took the forbidden fruit, becoming a warning about the corrupting
delights of food and drink. A different example is Le Ménagier de Paris,
a long household book directed at a fifteen-year-old wife, instructing
her in everything to do with proper bourgeois domesticity. It is an
operating manual for a Parisian wife, which may have been known by
Chaucer, complete with information about everything from morals to
the good management of gardens, kitchens, stables, servants, and so on.
The final section is dedicated to the provision of food and the kind and
number of animals butchered for royalty, followed by descriptions of the
parts and cost of meat, culinary tips and terminology, sample menus,
kitchen personnel and roles, and wedding planning; there follows a
recipe collection. See Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose, trans., The
Good Wife’s Guide: Le Ménagier de Paris: A Medieval Household Book
(New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 253–339.
16 Staley, Languages of Power, 279–80. Disquiet is exposed in the English
Ricardian literature Staley so deftly examines, where husbands are not
prosperous and households are not harmonious—most notably in
Chaucer’s Tales. But as Sponsler shows in Drama and Resistance, the
conduct literature itself exposes the daily hardships of husbands and
the potential unruliness of the household.
17 Work I have found helpful so far includes Julia Reinhard Lupton’s
“Thinking with Things: Hannah Woolley to Hannah Arendt,” post-
medieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3 (2012): 63–79, and
“The Renaissance Res Publica of Furniture,” in Cohen, Animal, Vegetable,

Mineral, 211–36. See Cooper, “Bed, Boat, and Beyond,” on how furniture
objects become subjects in narrative, outlasting the historical personages
who find a seat at the table.
18 Trigg, “Learning to Live,” 468.
19 Sponsler, Drama and Resistance, 72–74.
20 For discussions of the table as a recurrent presence in the history of phi-
losophy, see Philip Fisher, “Pins, a Table, Works of Art,” Representations
1 (1983): 43–57; Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations,
Objects, Others (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).
21 Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 395 [XX.i.1].
22 Pliny, Natural History, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1961), 226. On the popularity and impor-
tance of the work within the universities, see Marjorie Chibnall, “Pliny’s
Natural History and the Middle Ages,” in Empire and Aftermath, ed. T. A.
Dorey (London: Routledge, 1975), 57–78.
23 Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 382 [XIX.xix.4].
24 Ibid., 272 [XIII.iii.1].
25 Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 1134 [730b], in Complete Works,
vol. 1.
26 Lemay, Women’s Secrets, 64. For more on this language, see Jeremy J.
Citrome, “Medicine and Metaphor in the Middle English Cleanness,”
The Chaucer Review 35, no. 3 (2001): 273–74.
27 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of
Mourning, and the New International (London: Routledge, 1994), 160.
28 Karl Marx, Capital, part 1, chapter 1, section 4, excerpted in Marx-Engels
Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 216.
29 Derrida, Specters of Marx, 157.
30 Ibid., 151.
31 Ibid., 160.
32 See Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments,
Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001),
33 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings,
34 Foucault, Order of Things, xvii.
35 See Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic
Writings, ed. David Krell (London: Harper Perennial, 2008), 307–42.
36 Agamben, The Open, 41.
37 Munby, “Wood,” 379.
38 See De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, 121–22; Charles R.
Bowlus, “Ecological Crisis in Fourteenth-Century Europe,” in Historical

Ecology, ed. Lester Bilsky (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1980);
but see Munby, “Wood.”
39 Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls 176–82, in The Riverside Chaucer.
40 Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London:
Reaktion Books, 1999), 24. Architect and urban designer Peter Trummer
likewise observes in “Morphogenetic Urbanism,” Digital Cities 79, no. 4
(2004): 65, that “the designer forces his or her ideas into the wood, but
the wood has forces that are as specific as the designer’s ideas. . . . The
hylomorphic model denies this interrelationship between ideas (form)
on the one side and hyle (matter) on the other.”
41 Flusser, Shape of Things, 58–60.
42 Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis.
43 Arendt, Human Condition, 137.
44 Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, 107–8.
45 Chaucer, General Prologue 353–54, in The Riverside Chaucer.
46 Ibid., 345.
47 Ibid., 346–47.
48 John Russell, Boke of Nurture, in The Babees Book: Early English Meals
and Manners, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, EETS o.s. 32 (London: N.
Trübner, 1868), 170–71.
49 John of Garland, Dictionarius, 200 [para. 55], in Teaching and Learning
Latin in Thirteenth-Century England, vol. 1, ed. Tony Hunt (Cambridge:
D. S. Brewer, 1991).
50 Heidegger, Being and Time, 97.
51 D. Vance Smith, Arts of Possession: The Medieval Household Imaginary
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 42.
52 Ibid., 18.
53 Chaucer, Nun’s Priest’s Tale 2832–46, in The Riverside Chaucer.
54 Graham Harman, Circus Philosophicus (Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books,
2010), 71; Harman, Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures
(Winchester, U.K.: Zero Books, 2010), 207.
55 Harman, “Well-Wrought Broken Hammer,” 199.
56 Lingis, The Imperative, 49.
57 Ibid., 69.
58 Benso, Face of Things, 155.
59 Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars: Protocols, Conversations, Letters,
trans. Franz Mayr and Richard Askay (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern
University Press, 2001), 100.
60 Martin Heidegger, Ontology—The Hermeneutics of Facticity, trans. John
van Buren (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 69.
61 Chaucer, Parson’s Tale 444–47, in The Riverside Chaucer.

62 Ibid., 829.
63 Cleanness 1458–74, in Andrew and Waldron, Poems of the Pearl
64 Wynnere and Wastoure and The Parlement of the Thre Ages, ed. Warren
Ginsberg (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, 1992), 342–43.
65 John Gower, Mirour de l’Omme (The Mirror of Mankind), trans. William
Burton Wilson (East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1992), 107–19
and 118.
66 Chaucer, Parson’s Tale 480, in The Riverside Chaucer.
67 For relevant remarks on the how American materialism, indifferent to
vibrant matter, represents “antimateriality,” see Bennett, Vibrant Matter,
5. The table can represent a kind of rampant antimaterialism, recalling
recent remarks by Terry Eagleton about how late capitalism, “for all
its crass materialism, is secretly allergic to matter.” See Eagleton, After
Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 165.
68 Arendt, Human Condition, 52.
69 Jacques Derrida, “‘Eating Well’ or the Calculation of the Subject: An
Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Who Comes After the Subject?,
ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York:
Routledge, 1991), 115.
70 See John Cochran, “Object Oriented Cookery,” Collapse Vol. VII:
Culinary Materialism (2011): 299–329.
71 John Lydgate, “The Dietary,” in McCracken, Minor Poems of John
Lydgate, 703.
72 Robert Steele, ed., Lydgate and Burgh’s Secrees of Old Philosoffres: A
Version of the “Secreta Secretorum,” EETS e.s. 66 (London: Kegan Paul,
Trench, Trübner, 1894), 58–61; Lydgate, “Dietary,” 705.
73 Terence Scully, “Mixing It Up in the Medieval Kitchen,” in Medieval Food
and Drink, Acta, vol. 21, ed. Mary-Jo Arn, 1–26 (Binghamton: SUNY
Press, 1995). William of Conches offers a typical account in A Dialogue,
144: “the matter constituting the four humors is drawn from the four
elements in food and drink, prepared in the stomach, and divided into
the four humors in the liver.”
74 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 122.
75 Wells, “Manners Maketh Man,” 67.
76 Ibid., 68.
77 Derrida, Animal That Therefore I Am, 29.
78 Chaucer, Pardoner’s Tale 538–40, in The Riverside Chaucer.
79 Gower, Mirour de l’Omme, 110.
80 Hughes, Rise of Alchemy, 146–47.
81 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 149–50.

82 Adelard of Bath, Questions on Natural Science, 175. For an excellent

extended discussion of the threatening possibility that meat eating turns
animal flesh into human flesh, see Steel, How to Make a Human, 108ff.
83 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things, vol. I, 321 [6.20].
84 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 39 and 49.
85 Cochran, “Object Oriented Cookery,” 313.
86 Trigg, “Learning to Live,” 469.
87 Lydgate, “Dietary,” 705.
88 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 134–36.
89 Ibid., 138.
90 Urbanitatis, in The Babees Book: Early English Meals and Manners, 14.
91 The Babees Book, in The Babees Book: Early English Meals and Manners,
92 Lydgate, Stans Puer, in Minor Poems, 742.
93 Caxton’s Book of Curtesye, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (London: N. Trübner,
1868), 21.
94 Lydgate, Stans Puer, in Minor Poems, 739–41; cf. Caxton’s Book of
Curtesye, 25; Urbanitatis, 15.
95 Lydgate, Stans Puer, in Minor Poems, 738–44.
96 Caxton’s Book of Curtesye, 23.
97 Sponsler, “Eating Lessons,” 18; cf. Amos, “For Manners Make Man.”
98 Elias, History of Manners, 107.
99 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 130–31.
100 Giles of Rome, Governance of Kings and Princes, 234 [II.ii.13].
101 Wells, “Manners Maketh Man,” 71.
102 Merleau-Ponty, Primacy of Perception, 5; Lingis, The Imperative, 18.
103 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things, vol. II, 1376
104 Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 53.
105 Ingold, Perception of the Environment, 195: “the taskscape is to labour
what the landscape is to land.” Even the most banal experiences we take
for granted while eating require much responsiveness, as exemplified by
a virtuoso passage reconstructing the steps involved in eating a carrot,
in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 21, a
novel that is all about the difficult labor of reenacting mundane tasks.
106 Lydgate, “Dietary,” 706; Caxton’s Book of Curtesye, 19.
107 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 124.
108 Trigg, “Learning to Live,” 468.
109 Derrida, Animal That Therefore I Am, 29.
110 Dervieu, “La Table et Le Couvert Du Repas,” 404; cf. G.  R. Owst,
Preaching in Medieval England: An Introduction to Sermon Manuscripts
of the Period, c. 1350–1450 (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 20.

111 Chaucer, General Prologue 146–47, in The Riverside Chaucer.

112 Scully, Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, 104ff. Cf. Constance Hieatt
and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch, EETS s.s. 8 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1985).
113 Scully, Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, 106.
114 Recipe 72 in The Viandier of Taillevent: An Edition of All Extant Manu-
scripts, ed. Terence Scully (Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press,
1997), 288.
115 John Lydgate, “The Soteltes at the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI,”
in Minor Poems, 623–24.
116 Scully, Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, 107; see Constance Hieatt,
A Gathering of Medieval English Recipes (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols,
117 Scully, Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, 107.
118 Richard Morris, ed., Liber Cure Cocorum: Copied and Edited from the
Sloane MS. 1986 (Berlin: A. Asher, 1862), 5.
119 Dervieu, “La Table et Le Couvert Du Repas,” 413. On “ymages in suger,”
see Hieatt and Butler, Curye on Inglisch, 153.
120 See, for assorted examples, Eames, Furniture in England, France, and the
Netherlands; Patrick Ottaway and Nicola Rogers, Craft, Industry, and
Everyday Life: Finds from Medieval York, vols. 17–15 (York: Council for
British Archaeology, 2002), 2812; Arthur MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory,
and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials since the Roman Period
(Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985), 182; and C. V. Bellamy and H. E.
Jean le Patourel, “Four Medieval Pottery-Kilns on Woodhouse Farm,
Winksley, near Ripon, W. Riding of Yorkshire,” Medieval Archaeology
14 (1970): 104–25.
121 Boke of Curtasye, 302.
122 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 135. See also Urbanitatis, 13; The Lytylle
Childrenes Lytil Boke, in The Babees Book: Early English Meals and
Manners, 25; Stans Puer, 30; and Hugh Rhodes Boke of Nurture, in The
Babees Book: Early English Meals and Manners, 79.
123 The Lytylle Childrenes Lytil Boke, 25.
124 Salisbury, Beast Within, 49; cf. Elias, History of Manners, 134ff.
125 William Donald Reynolds, The Ovidius Moralizatus of Petrus Berchorius:
An Introduction and Translation, PhD diss., University of Illinois at
Urbana–Champaign, 1971, 400–402.
126 Scully, Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, 183.
127 See Gower, Mirour de l’Omme, 107 and 116; cf. Chaucer, Parson’s Tale
817–35, in The Riverside Chaucer.
128 Reynolds, Ovidius Moralizatus of Petrus Berchorius, 266–68.
129 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 140–46.

130 Steel, How to Make a Human, 219.

131 Russell, Boke of Nurture, 137 and 140–41.
132 Caxton’s Book of Curtesye, 21.
133 Lydgate, Stans Puer, in Minor Poems, 742.
134 Elias, History of Manners, 119–23.
135 Cf. the analytic function in “Childish Things,” p. 65.
136 The Babees Book, 7.
137 John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS e.s. 121–24
(London: Oxford University Press, 1924–27; repr. 1967), I.4197; II.3202–
6; V. 2938–42; and VI.1351.
138 Ibid., II.1408–14; II.3816–43; V.2243–49; and VII.159–61.
139 Serres, The Parasite, 177.
140 Ambrose, Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel,
trans. John J. Savage (New York: Catholic University of America Press,
1961), 233; cited in part in Salisbury, Beast Within, 49.
141 Karl Steel, “With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of
the Wolf-Child of Hesse,” in Cohen, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, 34.
142 See Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, chapters 7 and 11, and his paper “On
Vicarious Causation,” Collapse II, ed. R. Mackay (Oxford: Urbanomic,
2007), 171–205.
143 Trigg, “Learning to Live,” 467.
144 See G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957); J. L.
Austin, “How to Talk: Some Simple Ways,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian
Society 53 (1952–53): 227–46.
145 See, e.g., Adam of Petit Pont, De utensilibus, 174–75, in Teaching and
Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England, vol. 1, ed. Tony Hunt
(Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991). Following Adam, Alexander Nequam
also starts with the kitchen and associated storerooms: “In a kitchen
there should be a small table on which cabbage may be minced, and also
lentils, peas, shelled beans, beans in the pod, millet, onions, and other
vegetables of the kind that can be cut up. There should also be pots,
tripods, a mortar, a hatchet, a pestle, a stirring stick, a hook, a cauldron,
a bronze vessel, a small pan, a trencher, a bowl, a platter, a pickling vat,
and knifes for cleaning fish. . . . In the pantry let there be shaggy towels,
tablecloth, and an ordinary hand towel which shall hang from a pole to
avoid mice. Knives should be kept in the pantry, an engraved saucedish,
a saltcellar, a cheese container, a candelabra, a lantern, a candlestick,
and baskets.” As translated by Urban Tigner Holmes, Daily Living in the
Twelfth Century: Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckham in
London and Paris (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), 93.
The Latin can be found in Alexander Nequam, De nominibus utensilium,
181–82, in Teaching and Learning Latin. On what the wordbooks say

about artisanal labor and literacy, see Lisa Cooper, Artisans and Narrative
Craft in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2011), 23ff.
146 Adam of Petit Pont, De utensilibus, 168, in Teaching and Learning Latin.
Translation slightly modified from Werner Hüllen, English Dictionaries,
800–1700: The Topical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),
147 Robert Epstein, “Eating Their Words: Food and Text in the Coronation
Banquet of Henry VI,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies
36, no. 2 (2006): 368.
148 See Bruno Latour, “Drawing Things Together,” in Representation in
Scientific Practice, ed. Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 19–68.
149 Rita Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1991), 94–95.
150 For descriptions of sensual immersion of the dining subject in the great
household, see C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (New
Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006), 251–53; and see the chapter
on “Tables” in Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled
Bodies, trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley, 152–235 (London:
Continuum, 2008).
151 Serres, Five Senses, 184.
152 Lisa Cooper, “The Poetics of Practicality,” in Strohm, Middle English:
Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, 504.
153 Cf. Amos, “For Manners Make Man,” 41–42.
154 Cicero, De oratore, trans. E. W. Sutton (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1967), 465–67 [II. Ixxxvi].
155 Ibid., 469 [II. Ixxxvii].
156 On the fable of Simonides, see Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought:
Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 27–28; Frances A. Yates, The Art of
Memory (London: Routledge, 1966), 6–17.
157 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 61–80, 86, in Andrew and Waldron,
Poems of the Pearl Manuscript.
158 Ibid., 121–29. As translated by Casey Finch in The Complete Works of
the Pearl Poet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 215.
159 As noted in Wells, “Manners Maketh Man,” 78; and Derek Brewer,
“Feasts in England and English Literature in the Fourteenth Century,” in
Feste und Feiern im Mittelalter: Paderborner Symposion des Mediavisten-
verbandes, eds. Detlef Altenburg, Jörg Jarnut, and Hans-Hugo Steinhoff
(Sigmarigen, Germany: Jan Thorbecke, 1991), 20.
160 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 484.

161 Ibid., 105.

162 Ibid., 919.
163 Ibid., 884–95.
164 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 1007–9.
165 Ibid., 1661–63.
166 Arthurian romance has a long history of taking tables seriously. See
Cooper, “Bed, Boat, and Beyond,” on the “fascination with the furnished
world” in La Queste del Saint Graal, where chair, bed, and table are said
to be “physical artifacts and narratological engines” (26 and 28). Cf.
Gordon, Culinary Comedy, 25.
167 Wynnere and Wastoure 332–52.
168 See Chaucer, Pardoner’s Tale 443, in The Riverside Chaucer; see Jill
Mann, “Eating and Drinking in Piers Plowman,” Essays and Studies 32
(1979): 26–43.
169 Cleanness 23–168 and 1417–1660. For a fuller account of these examples,
see Brewer, “Feasts in England and English Literature,” 17–19.
170 Chaucer, General Prologue 127–41 and 340–54, in The Riverside Chaucer.
171 Serres, Five Senses, 174.
172 Ibid., 244–45.
173 Langland, Piers Plowman, XI.38–39.
174 Ibid., XV.31–46.
175 Ibid., XV.247.
176 Jeffrey Bardzell, Speculative Grammar and Stoic Language Theory in
Medieval Allegorical Narrative: From Prudentius to Alan of Lille (New
York: Routledge, 2009), 41.
177 Anne Savage, “Piers Plowman: The Translation of Scripture and Food for
the Soul,” English Studies 74, no. 3 (1993): 214. Compare the penetrating
analysis in Mann, “Eating and Drinking in Piers Plowman,” who writes
that “the material world is not merely a vehicle for expressing the im-
material, but on the contrary contains the heart of its meaning and its
mystery” (27).
178 As Nicholas Watson argues in “Piers Plowman, Pastoral Theology, and
Spiritual Perfectionism: Hawkyn’s Cloak and Patience’s Pater Noster,”
Yearbook of Langland Studies 21 (2007): 83–118, Patience is a virtue who
ultimately represents what is for most people an unattainable spiritual
purity, renouncing food and other worldly goods.
179 Nicolette Zeeman, Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 259.
180 Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 64.
181 Cf. Ann W. Astell, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of

the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006); Bynum,
Holy Fast and Holy Feast, 3–4 and 48ff.
182 Bynum, Holy Fast and Holy Feast, 177.
183 Langland, Piers Plowman, XI.29–39.
184 Serres, Five Senses, 228.
185 Urbanitatis, 15.

1 Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” 55.
2 Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description
(Routledge: New York, 2011), 74.
This page intentionally left blank

abortion, 18–19, 77, 191n77 26–27; participative nature and,

abuse value, 90–93 27; universe as zoion (animal), 40,
Acampora, Ralph, xix, xx, xxvi 45–49; zoomorphism, xxix. See
actor-networks, 64, 73–76, 78, 82–84, also human, ideas of
173 Anscome, G. E. M., 157
Adam of Petit Pont: De utensilibus, anthropocentrism, xvii, xviii, xix,
158, 168, 232n145 xxiv, 27, 65, 119–20, 124, 131
Adelard of Bath, 15, 28, 145 anthropomorphism, 128–29, 131, 152,
affordances, 63, 71, 76, 102, 118, 209n76. See also personification
137–38, 203n11 anti-Jewish rhetoric, figures and, 112,
Agamben, Giorgio, xxviii, 6, 36, 65, 218n188. See also Jewish craftwork
88, 92, 131, 185n23 aquamanile, 152, 201n1, pl. 11. See also
Ahmed, Sara, 150, 227n20 table; tableware, utensils and
Albertus Magnus, xviii–xix, 13, 16, Aquinas, Saint Thomas, 16, 30, 67,
20–21, 27, 28, 46, 67, 77, 81, 107, 90, 192n93, 195n149
209n76, 210n80 Arendt, Hannah, xiv, xxix, 120, 132,
alchemy, 37–38, 75, 76–78, 79, 107, 142
145, 209n76, 210n80 Ariès, Phillippe, 33, 89–90
allegory, 46, 49, 122, 124, 171–74 Aristophanes: The Birds, 47
Alpher, Ralph, 54, pl. 4 Aristotle, xv, 2–3, 8–9, 14, 50, 53, 67,
Ambrose, Saint, 156 86, 102, 106, 127, 128, 192n79
Amos, Mark Addison, 125 artificial life, automata and
analytic break, 65, 115, 148, 154–55 animation and, 97, 101–2, 106–7,
animals: bestiary descriptions, 22, 113, 127, 129, 203n15, 217n183,
27; carving and eating, 151–56; 220n207, 220n211
cross-species relations, xxvi, 43; Astell, Ann W., 234n181
embryology and, xv, xxv, 19–21; astrolabe, xxiv, 43, 55–57, 95, pl. 5
gradations in concept of, xix, 21; attention, xiii, xx, 85–86, 91, 98, 120,
imagery of, 152, 153; intelligence 133
and, 27–28; irrationality and, Auerbach, Erich, 113


Augustine, Saint, xi–xii, 1–2, 3, 7, 90– Bersuire, Pierre: Ovidius

91, 183n2, 214n140; Confessions, Moralizatus, 153
xi–xii, 1–2 Bible, Vulgate: Book of Exodus, 18;
Austin, J. L., 157 Daniel, 168; First Corinthians, 90,
autonomy, lack of, xi, xxviii, xxix, 196n169; John, 34; Luke, 37, 168,
xxx, 103–4, 104, 105, 120, 124, 170; Matthew, 168, 196n169; Book
125–26, 128, 191n77 of Job, 34; 1 Peter, 196n169
Bildhauer, Bettina, 188n39
Babees Book, The, 123, 146, 147, 155, biomass flows: De Landa’s concept
161–62 of, 5
Bachelard, Gaston, 93–94 biopolitics, xxvi, 23, 185n23, 191n77
Bakhtin, Mikhail, 121, 225n7 biosocial being, xv, 22–23, 26, 28,
baptism, 28–30, 31, 195n136 30–31, 32
Barad, Karen, xix, 191n77 birth, xi–xiv, xxvi, xxx, 22–24, 26,
Baraitser, Lisa, 195n142 29, 34
Barasch, Moshe, 196n166 Blanchot, Maurice, 36
Bardzell, Jeffrey, 171 bloodletting man, 39–40, pl. 2
Barratt, Alexandra, 186n29 Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate,
Barrey, Jean-Claude, 211n87 193n97, 195n144
Barron, Caroline M., 207n52 Boethius, xviii, 40, 46
Barthes, Roland, 72 Bogost, Ian, 61, 225n9
Bartholomaeus Anglicus: On the Boholm, Åsa, 209n76, 210n79,
Properties of Things, 10–12, 25, 210n80
31–32, 40, 71, 86, 99, 105, 117, 119, Book of Curtesy, The, 123, 146–47, 151,
121–22, 145, 149–50, 187n36 154, 162
Beck, David: MVSEVM, 62 Book of the Knight of the Tower, The,
becoming, xii–xv, xxi–xxii, 4, 5, 226n15
10, 12, 14–15; being and, xiii; Boswell, John, 188n53–54
Deleuze’s concept of, 5, 81; Botz, Corinne May, 215n153
Meillassoux’s concept of, xxi–xxii; Boyarin, Adrienne Williams,
spatiotemporal dynamics of, xii, 223n236
xiii, xxx, 2, 4, 5, 10, 12, 14–15, 47, Brewer, Derek, 111, 233n159, 234n169
78, 126, 78; vanishing point of, bricolage, 113
xii, 1, 14. See also embryology; Britton (law book), 19
entelechy; epigenesis; generation Bryant, Levi, xix, 79, 83, 84
and growth; seed Buridan, John, 182n35, 200n253
Benjamin, Walter, 66, 72, 88, 92–93, Burrow, John, 221n213
94, 101, 129, 207n50 Butler, Judith, 29, 70–71
Bennett, Jane, xix, xx, 74, 84–85, 91, Butler, Sarah, 190n71, 191n77
131, 145, 202n6, 227n32, 229n67 Bynum, Caroline Walker, 181n24,
Benso, Silvia, 85, 92, 137 196n170, 217n184, 234n181
Bernardus Silvestris, 4, 45, 49–52,

Cadden, Joan, 12, 186n29, 187n36, 210n80 child: conduct and courtesy and,
Capella, Martianus, 182n35 xxviii–xxix, 122, 124, 125, 147–48,
capital, commerce and, xvi, xxvii, 150, 161–62; dependency of, xii,
xxviii, 81–82, 118, 120, 128–30, xiii, xxix, xxx, 1, 6–7, 24–25, 28, 31,
135–36, 207n50, 229n67. See also 33, 38; education of, 158, 168, 174,
commodity form, fetish and; 232n145; feral, 26; philosophical
reification concept of, xiv, xxii; positive
Carruthers, Mary, 165, 233n156 images of, 196n169; recreation
Catherine of Siena, 173 and, 66–71, 90; resurrection of, 6,
Caxton, William, 46, 199n217, 36, 197n181; social construction
214n123, 226n15; The Book of of, 22–23, 29–30, 64, 71; soul
Curtesy, 123, 146–47, 151, 154, 162; departing as, 34–38, 196n169. See
The Book of the Knight of the also childish, literary conceit of;
Tower, 226n15 eating, dining and; infancy; toys,
celestial influence, 4, 15, 16, 38–39, 77, playthings and
189n59, pl. 2 childish, literary conceit of, xxvii,
changeling, 195n136 xxviii, 34–38, 50–51, 103–5, 107,
chaos, xxii, xxviii, 48, 49–50, 51–52, 114–15
55, 92 chivalry: anachronism and nostalgia
Charbonneau, Joanne A., 221n218 for, 59; ideology and mystique
charms, childbirth and, 188n53–54 of, 64, 67, 111; knight as hybrid,
Chaucer, Geoffrey, 66, 162, 168, 80, 113, 211n87. See also romance,
226n15; childlike persona, xxviii, genre of
104–6, 106–7, 108, 114; Ellesmere Christ: birth, 23; conception of, 8;
portrait, 65–66; father Chaucer, dolls and effigies of, 217n184; last
201n259; son Lewis, 56, 95. Works: supper and Eucharistic meal, 121,
The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, 75, 141, 145, 166, 172–73; wound as
107; The Canterbury Tales, xxviii, womb, 34
34, 65–66, 111, 114, 166; “The Cicero, 121, 163–65
Former Age,” 82; The Franklin’s Circe, 153
Tale, 107; General Prologue, 66, Citrome, Jeremy J., 205n29, 227n26
105, 134–35, 169, 222n230; House of Clark, Andy, 28
Fame, 219n205; The Nun’s Priest’s Cleanness, 139, 168
Tale, 136; The Pardoner’s Tale, 34, Cochran, John, 143, 145
145; Parliament of Fowls, 131; The Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, 21, 66, 79–80,
Parson’s Tale, 138–39, 152; The 176, 180n20, 181n24
Prioress’s Prologue and Tale, 34, Cole, Andrew, xvii, 201n257
104, 112–13, 114, 151, 223n236; The commensality, 121–22, 123, 139, 162,
Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas, 165–66, 169, 173
66, 104–15, 222n228; The Squire’s commodity form, fetish and, xvii,
Tale, 109; The Tale of Melibee, xxviii, 60, 63, 128–30, 137, 140, 150
114–15; Treatise on the Astrolabe, complexion, humors and
56–57, 95, pl. 5 temperament and, 10, 40, 41, 143,

145, 187n32, 188n53–54, 229n73 Deleuze, Gilles, 5, 6, 48–49, 80, 81,

comportment, 67. See also postural 88, 92, 183n39, 185n15, 210n80
schema Demaitre, Luke, 193n107
conception, xxv, 8–9, 77, 188n53–54, de Pascalis, Andrea, 209n68, 210n79
189n59 Derrida, Jacques, xiii, xxviii, 3,
conduct books. See household 128–30, 142, 144, 151
literature De Secretis Mulierum, 6, 128
cookery, 122, 143, 144–45, 152, 161 desire, 35, 61, 63, 93, 101, 126, 133,
Cooper, Lisa, 161, 226n17, 232n145, 140–42, 151
234n166 De Spermate, 12, 39, 189n59
Copeland, Rita, 161, 224n251 Despret, Vinciane, 211n87
correlationism: Meillassoux’s DeVun, Leah, 210n80
concept of, xxi–xxii, 181n28 didacticism, 64, 70, 124, 125, 139, 160,
cosmic egg, xxvii, 6, 45–49, 54, 55, 174
78, pl. 3 Dinshaw, Carolyn, xxv
cosmogony, xxii, xxvii, 45–52 direction of fit, 157–58, 169
cosmology: geocentrism, xix, disability, 8, 32–33, 34
xxiv, 55, 56, 182n35; partial disease, 39, 40, 51, 77, 144, 145, 189n59
heliocentrism, 182n35, 200n253; disequilibrium, 40–41, 51–52
Ptolemaism and provisionality of, distributed agency, 56, 74, 104,
xxiv, 55, 182n35, 201n254 119–120, 126, 160, 163. See also
cosmopolitics: Stengers’ concept of, actor-networks
83–84 Dronke, Peter, 50–51
cosmos, as ornament, 95 Dronzek, Anna, 125
craft labour, xxvii, 59, 64, 72–73, 78, Duns Scotus, John, 4–5
80, 85, 108, 111, 120, 127, 132–33, Dunston, Gordon Reginald, 186n29
207n50, 220n211
Crane, Susan, 80, 211n87 Eagleton, Terry, 229n67
Crawford, Sally, 89, 214n129 eating, dining and, xxviii–xxix,
creaturely existence, xxvi, 6, 185n23 118, 121–26, 134–36, 138–56, 161,
critique, 60–61, 62, 64, 130 166–74; appetite, xxix, 140–41,
CSI (television series), 215n153 151, 154; banqueting scenes, 121,
163, 164–66, 169–72, pl. 10; bodily
Daedalus, 127 incorporation and, 142–45,
Dance of Death, The, 24, 32 146–47; choreography of, 149, 168;
Daniell, Christopher, 195n144 diet and digestion, xxix, 15, 25–26,
Dante, 4, 7, 12, 16, 28–29, 35, 38, 114, 143, 145, 147; sacrilege and, 139–40,
121, 174 145, 170; table talk and, 169–71,
death, xii, xiv, 2, 31–32, 34, 36–38, 52, 174. See also cookery; etiquette;
197n171 table; tableware, utensils and
de Bracton, Henry, 18 ecology, xvi, xviii, xix, xx, 6, 42–43,
de Charny, Geoffroi, 68 47, 55, 79–80, 84, 119–20, 131, 175
De Landa, Manuel, xix, 5, 77, 180n21 ecumenicism, eclecticism and, xx,
delayed animation, xxv, 2, 12–16 176, 180n21

Edward the Black Prince, 69, 82–83, of, xxviii, 92, 96, 113, 131, 135, 138
212n102 Erasmus, 124
Egan, Geoff, 201n1, 205n26, 218n188 ethics, xvi, xviii, xx–xxi, xxvi, 35, 37
eggs, xv, xx, 3, 5, 19, 20, 132, 192n79. etiquette, xxviii, 124–25, 141, 147–48.
See also cosmic egg See also eating, dining and; table
elements, four. See under matter Ettinger, Bracha, xiv, 57, 78, 210n80
Eliade, Mircea, 210n79 exchange-value, 91, 128–30
Elias, Norbert, xxviii, 124–25, 141, exo-relations: Bryant’s concept of,
147–48, 154 79, 80, 83
embryology, xiii, 2, 4, 5, 6–7, 10–12,
13, 15; animation and ensoulment, factum, 60
12–13, 188n46; dual seed theory, fantasy, 60, 65, 80, 110
8–9, 11, 21, 53, 77, 187n36; fetus as feedback, feed system and, xxix,
protean parasite, xxx; formative 43, 124, 133, 138, 142, 144, 145, 153,
virtue, 4, 8, 9, 11, 187n36; formed 156–60
and unformed fetus, 18–19, 30; Feerick, Jean E., 181n24
genetic indetermination, 13, fetus fetish, 191n77
14; Hippocratic–Galenic and fiction, literature and, 65, 66, 101,
Aristotelian, 8–11, 187n36; liquid 102, 103 104, 106–9, 112–13, 114–15,
origins, xxv, 6, 9, 11; metal and 121, 123–24, 133, 137, 157, 163, 165,
stone, 76–77, 78, 209n76, 210n80; 168–69, 173–74, 220n206, 220n207,
plurality of forms, xxv, 8, 9, 220n211
16–22; position and placement, Finucane, Ronald C., 195n136
10–11, 15, 22, 24, 189n59, pl. 1; Fisher, Philip, 227n20
preformationism, 14, 15; sex flat ontology, xx, 43, 56, 95
determination, 8–9, 15; thermal Flusser, Vilém, xxix, 5, 131–34, 142
conditions, 11, 15; time to food. See eating, dining and
development, 2, 8, 9, 13; uterine Ford, Norman, 7
existence and environment, 2, forestry, 119–20
9, 10, 11, 13. See also becoming; Forsyth, Hazel, 201n1, 202n4,
celestial influence; delayed 205n26, 218n188
animation; entelechy; epigenesis; Foucault, Michel, 38, 130, 185n23
generation and growth; Freud, Sigmund, 87, 96, 97
monstrous issue; seed, seminal futurity, xvi–xviii, xiv, xxiv–xv, 5, 28,
virtue and 37, 38, 50, 54–55, 65, 84, 89, 161,
empiricism, viii, xix, 78, 115, 132–34, 176, 204n21
174 Fynsk, Christopher, 31
enfant sauvage. See infant universe
enjoyment, 85, 90, 214n140 Galen, 9, 102, 106, 187n36
entelechy, 2–3, 13, 45 Gamow, George, 54, pl. 4
epigenesis, xv, 2, 12, 14–16, 31, 42, 50, Gayk, Shannon, 223n245
55, 77, 78, 126, 157, 175 Gaylord, Alan T., 105
Epstein, Robert, 159 gaze, the, 63, 105
equipmentality: Heidegger’s concept gender, 29–30, 32, 37, 57, 66–67,

70–71, 79, 125, 205n26. See also sex Higley, Sarah L., 95, 203n14, 217n183
generation and growth: anterior Hildegard of Bingen, 2, 45, 46–47, pl. 3
to being, 3–4; arbitrariness and Hippocrates, 8–9, 19, 39, 86, 192n79
gratuitousness of, xiv; contingency Hird, Myra, xx
and temporality of, 15–16, 17, Holsinger, Bruce, xxiii
18; impersonality, xi, xiii, xxx; Horn, Andrew, 18–19
life-and-death paradox, xii, xiv, household habitats, VII, 121, 162
2, 31–32; metallogeny and, 76–78, household literature, conduct and
210n80. See also embryology; writing and, xxviii–xxix, 121,
entelechy; seed, seminal virtue 122–25, 146–50, 151, 154, 156–58,
and 160–161, 174, 226n15, 226n16
Gerald of Wales, 87 Hughes, Jonathan, 198n188, 199n220
Gilbert, Jane, 30 Hugh of St. Victor, 74–75
Giles of Rome, 4, 15, 16, 17, 19, 67, 68, human, ideas of, xvi, xviii–ix, xxix,
90, 100, 149 xxx, 2, 32–33, 34, 38, 102, 155–56,
golem, 102, 107, 217n183 175; animal and, xxix, 7, 10, 16–17,
Gordon, Sarah, 225n7 19, 26–27, 67, 100, 124, 141, 151–55,
Gower, John, 7, 10, 40–44, 52–54, 156, 185n23, 194n125, 204n21,
77, 140, 144–45, 162; Confessio 211n87; inhuman puppet and, 102,
Amantis, 7, 10, 40, 41–44, 52–54, 113; posthuman, xvi, xx–xxi, xxvii,
77, pl. 4; Mirour de l’Omme, 140, 38, 181n24; transhuman, xvi, 7, 38,
145, 153 43. See also trasumanar
Grant, Edward, 209n68 human hardware, 146, 150–51
Green, Monica, 22, 186n29, 187n36 humanitas, the humanities and, 123,
Gross, Kenneth, 217n182 165, 169, 173
guilds, organization and regulations hylomorphism, formed matter and,
and, 73–74, 79, 207n55, 208n58, 9, 11, 30, 49–55, 66, 70–71, 78–79,
209n66 115, 127–34, 187n30, 228n40, pl. 4

habitude, 67 Idel, Moshe, 217n183

Hanawalt, Barbara A., 28–29, imitatio infantium, 33–34, 196n169
186n29, 205n26 Imitation Game, Turing test and,
Haraway, Donna, xx, 211n87 220n207
Harman, Graham, xix, 63, 65, 84, individuation, process of, xiii, xv, xvi,
85, 118–19, 136–37, 138, 157, 180n21, xx, xxvi, 5, 125
202n6 infancy: Augustine on, xi–xii; bodily
Haskell, Ann, 108, 109, 110 regimens and, xxvi, 25; crying
Hawking, Stephen, 201n254 and, 31–32; fourth trimester, 22,
Heidegger, Martin, xxviii, 65, 92, 93, 25; gender and, 29–30, 32, 37;
96, 113, 131, 135, 136, 138 insufficiency and infirmity of, 8,
Heng, Geraldine, 31 28, 32–33; life and death and, xii,
Hermes Trismegistus, 77 31–32, 34, 35, 36; memory and, xi–
Herrad of Hohenbourg: Hortus xii, xiii, 1; nourishment and, 25–
deliciarum, 68 26; personal identity and, xi–xii,

xxvi, 17, 31; proto- or sub-human Laqueur, Thomas, 187n36

qualities, 26; social networks and, Latour, Bruno, xvii, xix, 43–44, 55,
xxvi, 22; suckling, xxvi, 25–26, 35; 64, 103–4, 119, 160, 172, 180n21,
uncertain issue, xxvi, 19, 26. See 202n6
also baptism; child; infans; infant Lee, Frances Glessner, 215n153
universe Le Ménagier de Paris, 226n15
infans, 31–32, 35, 36, 38 Lerer, Seth, 201n259
infant universe, 45, 49, 50–51 Levinas, Emmanuel, 37, 85
Ingham, Patricia C., 109, 205n26, Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 72, 97
218n188 Liber Cure Cocorum, 152
Ingold, Timothy, xix, 150, 176, life: delimitation of concept, xxvi;
213n118, 230n105 material foundations and medium
instrumentalization, 56, 65, 67, 81, 92, of, xiv, xv, xxx, 5–6; of metals,
94, 120 76–78; originating in death, xi–xii,
instrumentation, instruments and, 10. See also delayed animation;
28, 55–57, 95, 102, 148, 149, 154–55, generation and growth; infancy
182n35 Lightsey, Scott, 219n193
intension and remission, 19, 49, 52 Lingis, Alphonso, xiv, 61, 76, 85, 100,
interobjectivity, 115, 134, 157 137, 149, 209n67
Isidore of Seville, 32, 40, 78, 95, local manifestations, 79, 80
127–28, 195n152 Lombard, Peter: The Sentences, 15,
isopraxis, 211n87 90, 197n181, 214n141
Lupton, Julia Reinhard, 226n17
Jewish craftwork, 111–12 Lydgate, John, xxix, 122–23, 155–56,
John of Garland: Dictionarius, 135, 162; Debate of the Horse, Goose,
158, 168 and Sheep, 211n87; “Dietary,”
Joy, Eileen A., xxv, 181n24 123, 125, 143, 146, 151–55; Fall of
Jurkowski, Henryk, 217n184 Princes, 155; “The Soteltes at the
Coronation Banquet of Henry
Kelly, Kathleen, 205n29 VI,” 123, 152, 159–60; Stans Puer ad
Kempe, Margery, 193n99, 217n184 Mensam, 123, 146–147, 154, 161
Kessler, Herbert L., 207 Lytylle Childrenes Lytil Boke, The, 153
King of Tars, The, 30–31
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane, 217n184 machina mundi, 48, 81
Kline, Daniel T., 195n150, 197n185 machine intelligence, 220n207
Koretsky, Allen C., 223n235 Mack, John, 204n23
Krier, Theresa M., 197n171 MacLehose, William F., 33, 186n29,
Kruger, Steven F., 218n188 196n169
Macrobius, 3, 13, 19, 39, 40, 45, 49, 121
Lacan, Jacques, 29, 31, 37 macrocosm, microcosm and, xviii, 6,
Lanfrank: Science of Cirurgie, 187n36 7, 13, 38–52, 81
Langland, William: Piers Plowman, Mann, Jill, 234n177
xxix, 27, 34, 123, 168, 169–72, 173 manuscripts, materials and layout and,
La Queste del Saint Graal, 121 39, 46, 65–66, 159–60, 223n242

mappa mundi, 93, 94–95 163, 169, 172–74, 225n9

Margaretha von Ebner, 217n184 metals, xxvii, 64, 73–79, 80–83, 120,
Marion, Jean-Luc, 61 220n211
Marwencol (film), 216, 154 Metzler, Irina, 188n53, 196n158
Marx, Karl, xxviii, 128–30, 135 microcosm. See macrocosm
Mass, the, 141, 145, 166, 172–73 Miller, Sarah Alison, 188n39
Masson, Cynthea, 210n80 Millhauser, Steven, 96
materialism, 61, 128–30, 180n21, miniatures: devotional objects,
229n67 94, 217n184; dioramas, 97; dolls,
matrix, xiv, 11, 49, 51, 56–57, 76–78 dollhouses and, 93, 94, 96–97, 101,
matter: animation and generation 104–5, 109, 112, 215n153, 215n160,
from, xiv–xv, xxx, 6, 13–14, 183n2; 217n184; equestrian figures, xxvii,
corruptible and refractory, 51–52; 59–60, 62–63, 64, 66, 79–81, 84,
culture of matter, xx; effective 85, 99–100, 201n2, pl. 6 and pl. 11;
materials and media, 118, 129, 130, finger puppets, 101–2; manuscript
131; etymology of, 79, 127–28; in illuminations and, 65; universe
excess of concepts, 61, 135; four and, 37, 40; various other, 65, 68,
elements, xv, xxv, 10, 19–20, 39, 69–70, 72–73, 95–96, 97–98, 152,
40, 46, 47, 48–49, 50, 53, 76–78, 201n1, 205n26, 206n35. See also
229n73; inclinations and force miniaturization; toys, playthings
of, 71, 79, 81; primordial matter, and
51, 52–54; provisions of, 134; miniaturization, xxvii, 64–65, 72,
sexual differentiation of, 70–71, 88, 93–100; craftwork and, 72–73,
79; Silva or Hyle, 49–52, 127–28; 93; doubles and recurrence, 96,
translating or transcoding of, 14, 97, 98, 101; dreamwork and, 97;
55–57, 80, 124, 145, 160–61, 172–73. fascinations of, xxvii, 63, 96,
See also hylomorphism, formed 97, 98, 102; fictional forms of,
matter and; metals; miniatures; xxviii, 104–15, 215n153; magic
miniaturization; object, the thing and, 219n205; monumentality
and; wood and, 65; speed and momentum
McCarthy, Tom, 230n105 of, 97, 110; subjective time and,
McCracken, Peggy, 188n39 98, 99; therapeutic effects, 94;
mechanical animals, xxviii, 65, 103, uncanny matters, 94, 95–96, 101;
219n193 uninhabitable images, 97. See also
Meillassoux, Quentin, xiv, xix, xxi– matter; miniatures; toy ontology;
xxv, xxx, 5–6 toys, playthings and
menstrual fluid, female matter and, Mirk, John: Festial, 195n144;
xxv, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 70, 80, 128, Instructions for Parish Priests,
187n36, 188n39, 210n80 195n137
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, xvi, 63, 85, “Mirror of the Periods of a Man’s
100, 149 Life” (poem), 23
mess, the, xxviii, xxix, 44, 122, 123, monstrous issue, deformation and,
125–26, 141–43, 148, 155, 160–162, 15, 18, 19, 26, 30, 176, 188n53

morphogenesis, xii–xiii, xv, xxvii, 5, and presence of, 59–60, 85, 130–31,
46, 52, 57, 82, 176, 228n40 137; lifespan of, 89, 119, 203n10;
Morton, Timothy, xix, 42, 79 literacy of objects, 87; objectus,
museum, collections and display, 59, meaning of, 60; residual and
62–63, 98–99 emergent qualities of, 61, 92, 176;
MVSEVM (Beck), 62 sincerity of, 85; as storage devices,
Myrour of the Worlde, The, 46, 132, 158; sum of relations, 64, 84;
199n217 things in themselves, 60, 61, 63,
64, 84, 86, 87, 119, 132–33, 136–37;
naming, 29, 31 transitional objects, 94; visibility
Nancy, Jean-Luc, xiv, xxx, 213n117 and, 63, 85. See also astrolabe;
Nardizzi, Vin, 181n24 miniatures; miniaturization; table;
natality: Arendt’s concept of, xiv thing-power; toy ontology; toys,
nationalism, 80 playthings and
nature: culture and, 22–23, 78, 144; objectival, concept of, 99, 115, 148
environments and, 41–42, 76, 77, object-oriented ontology, 61, 136–37,
83, 120, 141, 142–43; errors of, 15; 180n21
natural virtues of, 27; participative object relations theory, 88, 94
nature, 27; personified, 19, 49, objects, subjects and, xiii, xiv, xv, xix,
51, 102; supernatural and, 30–31; xx, xxix, 60, 87, 106, 118, 124, 125,
supplementation of, 28, 32. See 132–34, 137, 138, 149–51
also ecology; infancy; matter; O’Brien, Flann: The Third Policeman,
morphogenesis 215n153
Nelson, Victoria, 217n182 occult sciences, 37–38, 45, 47, 107–8,
neoteny, xxvi, 33–34 220n211. See also alchemy
Nequam, Alexander: De nominibus Olson, Glending, 90
utensilium, 158, 168, 232n145 one-sex model, 187n36
Neufeld, Christine M., xxv, 181n24 ontogeny, xiii, xvi, xxii, xxv–xxvi,
newborn. See infancy xxvii
Newman, Barbara, 210n80, 220n206 ontology: epistemology and, xxi,
Nix, Lori, 97 60; ontogeny and, xiii, xxv–xxvi,
North, John David, 200n251 xxvii, 2, 7, 180n21
Oosterwijk, Sophie, 193n101
object, the thing and: as analytic ordinary, the everyday and, xxviii,
instruments, 65, 115, 148, 154–55; 40, 59, 89, 92, 110, 117, 156, 173, 176
commodities, xxviii, 60, 62, 63, 88, Oresme, Nicole, 15, 16–17, 26, 99,
110–11, 113, 118, 128–30; density and 182n35, 188n53–54, 200n253
durability of, 59–61, 85–86, 136–37; Orme, Nicholas, 68, 69, 70, 206n35
discourse and, 117–24, 130, 157–59, overmining and undermining:
162, 169–70; dormancy of, 63, 119, Harman’s concepts of, 84, 118–19,
136–37; as explorable, 87; factum, 129
or matter of fact, 60; historicity Ovid, xv, xxiii, 4, 45–46, 48, 50, 127, 153
of, 59–60, 61–62, 88; imperatives Ovide moralisé, 46

Ovidius Moralizatus (Bersuire), 153 proprioception, 100, 102

puppets, xxviii, 101–4, 113, 129,
Pahta, Päivi, 186n29 218n185, pl. 8, pl. 9
paterfamilias, 125 Purdie, Rhiannon, 223n242
paternal function, 29–30, 36–37
Patterson, James G., 202n5 “Quasi modo geniti infantes”
Patterson, Lee, 108, 114, 205n29 (liturgy), 196n169
Pearl, The, xxvi–xxvii, 7, 35–37–38 queer, 79, 80, 210n80. See also
perception, 13, 59–60, 85, 86–87, 91, gender; sex
98, 100, 164–65
periodization, xvi–xviii, xxii–xxiv, Ratis Raving, 26, 69–70, 87–88, 101
xxviii, 60 reason, xviii, 7, 26–27, 28, 31, 32, 88,
personification, 122, 124, 130, 169–72. 90, 183n2
See also allegory regime of attraction: Bryant’s
pewter craft, 59, 66, 73–78, 80–83, concept of, 79, 80, 93
103, 208n57 reification, 62, 82, 137
Phillips, Kim M., 197n180 rhetoric, xxviii, 35, 11, 112, 121, 163,
Pickering, Andrew, xix 164–65, 174; antimetabole, xii,
planets, 55, 77, 81, 182n35, 189n59. See 2; catachresis or abusio, 91, 110,
also astrolabe; celestial influence 114, 215n143; ekphrasis, 161, 168;
Plato, xv, xviii, xxviii, 45, 127, 133, infrastructures of thought and,
169–70, 217n183 165; memory and, 121, 163–65
play, games and, xxvii–xxviii, Richard II, 68, 83
68–70, 87–88, 206n33; creativity Riddle, John, 186n29
and, 69–70, 87–88; function and Robertson, Kellie, 53–54, 181n24
dysfunction of, 65, 91, 204n21; romance, genre of, 70, 105, 108–9,
gender and, 66–67, 70, 71, 205n26; 111–14, 121, 122, 166–68, 220n211,
literary forms of, xxviii, 65–66, 234n166, pl. 10
106–7, 108; non-referential, 90, Romano, Claude, xiv, xxx
91–92; phenomenology of, 91; Rosenfeld, Jessica, 214n140
recreational justification of, 90; Rowland, Beryl, 193n102
rhythm of, 87; role-play, 68–69; Rublack, Ulinka, 217n184
spontaneity of, xxvii, 64; theories Ruskin, John, 87
of, 67, 90–91, 204n21; work and, Russell, John: The Boke of Nurture,
65, 69–70, 85, 88, 90, 91. See also xxix, 122–23, 134, 143, 145, 146, 148,
miniatures; toy ontology; toys, 151, 153–54
playthings and
Pliny, 127 Santner, Eric, 6, 185n23
Plutarch, 121 Savage, Anne, 172
posthuman. See under human scale, xxvii, 6, 7, 33, 42, 43, 56, 66,
postural schema, 100, 102, 149–50 72, 78, 93–101, 104, 161. See also
production, consumption and, 72, macrocosm, microcosm and;
75, 77, 118, 121, 128–29, 134, 138, miniaturization
142–45, 146, 151, 155, 157, 159 Scheps, Walter, 111, 221, 221n213

Scully, Terrence, 152 standing reserve: Heidegger’s

Seaman, Myra, 125, 226n15 concept of, 131
seed, seminal virtue and, xxv, Steel, Karl, 153, 156, 180n20, 194n116,
4–6, 8–9, 10, 11, 13; as equivocal 230n82
cause, 13; one-seed and two-seed Stengers, Isabelle, xix, 83–84, 202n6
theories, 8–9, 11, 21, 53, 77, 187n36; Stevenson, Robert Louis, 110
seminal reasons, 2–3, 4; semina Stewart, Susan, 63, 72, 96, 98, 207n53,
rerum, 4, 50; sulfur as, 210n80. 216n162, 217n183
See also conception; cosmogony; Strickland, Debra Higgs, 218n187
embryology; generation and subjectus, 60
growth suckling, xxvi, 25–26, 34
Sennett, Richard, 201n258 Sutton-Smith, Brian, 84, 87, 91, 92,
sensation, 27, 86–87, 90–92, 97, 100, 204n21, 215n145
102, 114, 161, 164–65, 172, 219n190 Swanson, Heather, 208
sensibilia, 90, 91 symbolic order, 29–30, 31–32, 37
sentience. See life syzygy: William of Conches’ concept
Serres, Michel, xxx, 156, 161, 169–70, of, 48–49
171, 174, 233n150
serviceability: Lingis’s concept of, 76, table, 96, 117–18, 119– 38, 156; Arendt
209n67 and, 120, 132, 142; Benjamin’s chess
sex, 8–9, 15, 47, 57, 79, 187n30, table, 129; Daedalus and, 127;
188n53; hermaphrodite, 15, Derrida’s spectral table, 128–29;
210n80; intersex, xxv, 15, 210n80; elevation of, 151, 156; festive
polymorphous, 15, 36, 79, 80–82. assemblage, 121–22, 138–41, 159,
See also embryology; gender 174; Flusser and, 131–32; Foucault’s
Shukin, Nicole, 185n23 operating table, 130; Harman
sight, visual phenomenon and, 63, and philosophical table, 118–19;
86, 99, 105, 161, 164–65 Heidegger’s writing table, 96,
Simpson, James, 200n249 135; paradigmatic object, xxviii,
Sims 3, The (video game), 93 118–19, 121, 126–28, 173; Platonic
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, form and, 127, 133; socialization
xxix, 123, 166–68 and, 124–25; textual elaborations
Smith, Peter K., 213n120 of, 122–24, 156–74; tragedy and,
sotelties, 138–39, 152, 159, 167, 201n1 127. See also eating, dining and;
Speaight, George, 218n185 tableware, utensils and
spectral life, 101, 106–7, 128–29 tableware, utensils and, xxix, 65,
speculation, speculative realism and, 66, 72, 121, 123, 126, 138–39, 141,
viii, xxi–xxv, 4, 8, 12, 35, 44, 55, 60, 146–47, 148, 150, 152–54, 156, 158,
166, 173, 182n35 160, 205n26, 232n145
speech, xiii, xviii, xxvi, 7, 26, 27, 28, Taglia, Kathryn Ann, 193n97
31–33, 36, 38, 92, 146, 147, 169–70, taskscape: Ingold’s concept of, 150,
174 213n118, 230n105
Sponsler, Claire, 125–26, 226n16 teleology, 2–4
Staley, Lynn, 125, 226n15–16 Theophilus: De diversis artibus, 75

thing-power: Bennett’s concept of, 160–62, 164, 168, 170, 172–73

91, 131 transubstantiation, 145, 172–73
Tiffany, Daniel, 183n40 trasumanar: Dante’s concept of, 7, 38
Tilghman, Ben, 207n52 Trigg, Stephanie, 125, 146, 151, 157
Tillis, Steve, 217n182 Trotula texts, 22, 24, 25, 26, 32,
time, xviii, xxx, 2, 19; anachronism, 186n29, 188n53, 192n92, 193n103,
xxiv–xxv, 59; chronicle and lived 194n114, 196n157
time, xvii, xxiii; cosmogony Truitt, E. R., 108–9, 220n211
and, 45; duration, subjective Turing, Alan, 220n207
experience, 98; scales of, xviii, 41, Turner, Marion, 209n66
76, 78, 97–98, 160; temporality
and, 61, 65, 88–90, 150, 175–76; umbilicus mundi, 57
time discipline, 56. See also uncanny, the, 96, 101
futurity; miniaturization; object, Urbanitatis, 146–47, 174
the thing and; periodization use-value, 91, 128–30
tin industry, 73, 75, 82–84, 207n55, Usk, Thomas: Testament of Love,
212n99 The, xxvi, xxviii, 34–35, 114
tiny ontology: Bogost’s concept of, 61
Tomasch, Sylvia, 218n188 Vance Smith, D., xvii, 135–36
tools, 28, 55–57, 65, 141 vicarious causation: Harman’s
topology, 2, 5, 14–15, 126, 78 concept of, 157–60
touch, 86–87, 161 virtuality, 4–5, 8, 13, 39, 92
toy, early usage, 59, 80, 89
toy ontology, xxviii, 61, 62, 65, 66, Wallace, David, 111, 222n230
84–93, 95 war machine: Deleueze and
toys, playthings and: abuse and, Guattari’s concept of, 81
90–93; as analytic devices, 65, 92, Watson, Nicholas, 172, 234n178
115; castoffs and makeshifts, xxviii, Wells, Sharon, 149, 225n10, 233n159
69–70, 87–89, 109–10; distractions Wells Cathedral Clock, 113
of, xxvii, 31, 84, 204n21, 215n145; Wenzel, Siegfried, 196n166
as exemplary objects, 69, 118, White, Lynn, Jr., 80
126–28; ideology and stereotyping Wigan, Willard, 216n156
and, xxvii, 66–71, 81, 92, 102; Wilkin, Rebecca, 191n77
intransitivity of, 91–92, 137; William of Conches, 13, 15, 19–20,
literary text as, 65, 108, 115; 27–28, 32, 48–49, 86, 98, 114,
liveliness of, 64–5 , 85; temporality 182n35, 229n73
and historicity of, 88–90; waste Wire, The (television series), 215n153
and excess of, 88–90, 92. See also Withers, Jeremy, 211n87
miniatures; play, games and; womb, figurative: alchemy and,
puppets; toy ontology 77–78, 210n80; asceticism and,
Transformer (toy), 81 196n170; astrolabe and, 56, 57;
transhuman. See under human Christ’s wound and, 34; matrixial,
translatability, 56, 57, 119, 124, 137, 145, xiv, 57, 78; mother earth and, 34,

47, 49, 76–78; second womb, 12, Yamamoto, Dorothy, 180n20

22, 25, 192n93; Silva or Hyle as, 50; Yates, Julian, 183n40, 204n23
tomb and, 34 Ylem: Gower’s concept of, 52–55,
wood, 119–20, 127–28, 131, 132 pl. 4
Woolgar, C. M., 150
wordbooks, 158, 162, 165, 168, 232n145 Zamir, Tzachi, 217n182
world soul, 40, 45, 48, 49 Zeeman, Nicolette, 172
Wynnere and Wastoure, xxix, 139–40, Žižek, Slavoj, 81–82, 218n188
J. Allan Mitchell is associate professor of English at the University of
Victoria. He is the author of Ethics and Eventfulness in Middle English
Literature and Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower.
plate 1. Presentations of the fetus prior to delivery, showing four of several ab-
normal dispositions. From a fifteenth-century English gynecological handbook
in the British Library, Sloane MS 249, fol. 197r. Courtesy of the British Library.
plate 2. Bloodletting man, a visual reference for use in phlebotomy. One of
several medical diagrams in the manuscript, this figure maps the influences of
planets and the zodiac on the human body. From the Wellcome Institute Library,
London, MS 49, fol. 41r. Used by permission of Wellcome Library, London.
plate 3. Illustration of the cosmic egg in Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias. In her
vision of the universe, the earth is presented as a central mass containing the
four elements and surrounded by clouds, winds, hail, lightning, and the fixed
stars, with the moon, sun, and outer planets arranged above. All is enclosed in a
radiant membrane of fire. From the facsimile of the lost Wiesbaden Codex, fol.
14r, a manuscript likely compiled by nuns in Hildegard’s scriptorium, circa 1170.
Image courtesy of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hildegard, Eibingen.
plate 4. Bottle of YLEM, a Cointreau bottle rebranded by George Gamow and
Ralph Alpher in 1948 to celebrate their paper on the original chemical makeup of
the universe. The physicists adopted the word ylem, a Middle English rendering
of Greek ὕλη, or “hyle,” for primordial matter, which they found in a dictionary
entry referring to John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Photograph by Eric Long,
National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2011-4170), Smithsonian Institution.
plate 5. Early English astrolabe (“Chaucer Astrolabe”), 10 mm thick × 133 mm
diameter. By means of planispheric projection, the astrolabe produces flat descrip-
tions of the hemispheric vault, recording on a small disc the positions of celestial
bodies. Besides charting planetary movements and geographical locations in
relation to the fixed stars, an astrolabe can calculate height or distance, convert
the hours, predict an eclipse, and determine a horoscope. This one is dated to 1326
and has several features in common with the astrolabe of Chaucer’s Treatise on
the Astrolabe. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.
plate 6. Miniature horseman, lead alloy, England, early fourteenth century.
Missing headgear and its left arm, the figurine bears the marks of history. Children
of the growing urban middle class likely possessed and played with such small
toys or trinkets. Copyright Museum of London.

plate 7. Miniature cauldron and ewer, lead alloy, England, fifteenth or sixteenth
century. Miniaturized household items tend to be verisimilar down to the finest
details, demonstrating the technical skill of their makers and lending themselves
to imitative role-play. Copyright Museum of London.
plate 8. Puppet show for children in Bodleian Library, University of Oxford,
MS Bodley 264, fol. 54v. It is one of two marginal illustrations of puppetry in the
fourteenth-century manuscript. Only a few medieval puppets and dolls survive
today, as those made from less durable materials than clay, wood, or metals would
have disintegrated long ago. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University
of Oxford.

plate 9. Puppet head, lead alloy, England, circa 1200. One of three finger or stick
puppets that survive from late medieval London, this one is likely a caricature of
the Jew. Yet such human simulacra may give rise to an uncanny sense of inter-
animation if not quite intimacy. Copyright Museum of London.
plate 10. Banquets are commonplace in medieval romance, and several rich
feast tables are illustrated in a deluxe copy of the Roman d’Alexandre. In this
miniature, the crowned Alexander takes a meal with three others before a table
prepared with ample cloth, trenchers, knives, a jug, and dishes serving roasted
fowl. A server stands nearby with arms crossed. From Bodleian Library, University
of Oxford, MS Bodley 264, fol. 67v. By permission of the Bodleian Libraries,
University of Oxford.

plate 11. Aquamanile in the form of a knight on horseback, bronze, England,

late thirteenth century. Water would be poured out of the spout in the horse’s
head to clean hands before and during a meal. This one, which would have been
restricted to affluent society, would have contributed to the grandeur of a me-
dieval banquet. Missing lance and shield. Copyright the Trustees of the British
Museum. All rights reserved.