Chapter 3: Food for Worms

[Chapter 3 of my book in progress. Chapter 5, on Oysters, is here:]


“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” — 1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Three Ways of Thinking About Death

How many ends does death have for us? The answer has long seemed easy, if depressing, or relieving: just the one. Into the “deepest pit” (Job 17:16), the dead, as one twelfth-century poem has it, “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [“fall into the depth like stones”].[1] Death drops us into the Inferno, Sheol, Tartarus, or Hades, places all topographically or at least etymologically associated with caverns or holes. Once there, we sometimes pass through to some other side, like Jonah from the whale’s gullet, to emerge into a better, undying life; or we miserably find ourselves in unending torment, whose wildest portrayal may be that of Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer [Dream of Hell], where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce.”[2] However many the roads to this end, whatever might await us on its other side, in this tradition of the Pit, there is but the one maw, and one maw only.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism offers a model for thinking about death far less singly, without the promise or threat of either a conclusion or an exit. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide.” [3] How, asks the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains: “in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ended growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.” [4] For de Quincey, there is no one, last pit, as no swallowing abyss can escape the appetite of others. Devouring continues unceasingly. I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s image. Abysses might well be as huge as hell, as dragons, as the sea, but they might be as minuscule as mitochondria, as the grave’s worms, as blowflies or anaerobic bacteria. They are everywhere, wherever things pass away or grow, wherever things feed other things. Everything is food, and death is at once an end and a flourishing of other appetites that will be consumed in turn.

Humans prefer to think of themselves as subjects in a world of objects rather than things like others, caught up universally in give and take. We prefer not to recognize that we, like anything else, are subjects for ourselves and objects for others. Of late, in Europe and most of its former American colonies, the common practice has been for humans to have their remains immolated, or pickled with chemicals and sealed into coffins and stuffed underground. Practically speaking, inhumation saves humans from the stench of rotting corpses and the sight of their dissolution. But disposal like this also throws up a border between usable materials and us, degrading the one and elevating the other, so we can keep pretending that we live only for ourselves.[5]

Medieval Christians buried their dead too, but, especially from the mid-thirteenth century on, they did not shrink from putrefaction. What is now morbid, aberrant, and smoothed out in the neo-Classical memorial clichés of contemporary Western cemetery architecture, was then a de rigueur, regular confrontation with disgust. This chapter proposes that material like this offers itself almost automatically to ecocriticism, because it so enthusiastically committed to humiliating our pretensions to worldly dominance and bodily integrity, and because it so insisted on the material facticity that our bodies share with others. Few cultural habits may be so easy to explore with the equipment of Donna Haraway’s call for “a wormy pile” of “humusities rather than humanities” in which “truly nothing is sterile,”[6] for late medieval death work is startlingly interested in the human body as inevitable food and with death as a material event. It is not much concerned with death as unassimilable otherness, as a problem of identity and decision and “my irreplaceability…my singularity,” and therefore of my irreducible “responsibility”[7]—here Derrida, writing on Heidegger and Levinas, stands in for a whole body of anxious, post-Hegelian encounters with what is so often figured as the implacable Other of our nonexistence. Of course, in medieval textuality, death can be a problem of the subject, too—one thinks of how the well-known morality play Everyman portrays the desperate solitude of the subject in death, stripped of all his supports and allies, with nothing left to exchange but himself—but in the mass of late medieval death work, death need not be identical with non-being. In it, death is often instead a material process, putrefaction and the slow crumbling to bones and dust in the appetites of fleshy, mortal others.

Certainly, much of this material is by-the-numbers reaffirmations of late medieval Christian asceticism, a humanism that, it hardly need be said, possesses its own ongoing force. And certainly most medieval death art aims to convince us to repudiate the flux of merely mortal existence by holding out the promise of bodies no longer subject to appetite, either our own or those of others. Some of it, however, offers itself up easily to profane interpretations. I don’t intend to be comprehensive in my treatment, although I invite readers familiar with this material to reconsider their favorites.[8] My narrow interest in this chapter is with work like this, the earliest version of a widespread short Middle English verse:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,

Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,

Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,

Þo heuede erþe of erþe ynoh.[9]

It is not easy to translate into modern English. Gillian Rudd renders, somewhat apologetically, as:

Earth took earth from the earth with sadness.

Earth drew the other earth to the earth.

Earth laid the earth in an earthen tomb.

Then had earth of earth earth enough.[10]

Typical interpretations take “earth” as simultaneously human, flesh, and spouse, but, as Rudd observes, “all these various readings persist in avoiding the word ‘erthe’ as simply that: earth.” In Rudd’s terranean reading—neither a surface or depth reading—the poem concerns the earth’s attitude towards “mankind, that jumped up bit of clay,” which the earth, in sorrow and frustration, “reclaims…re-absorbs and thus eradicates.”[11] I take her profane engagement as both authorization and model for what I will do in this chapter to an often-read late Middle English poem, ‘A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes’ (“The Disputation between the Body and the Worms,” hereafter Disputation), which gives voice both to dead flesh and its fleshy consumers. Because this poem is not a debate between soul and body, as so many of these kinds of poems are, because, in other words, it is soulless, it is as immanent an account of death as “Erthe toc of erþe.” But to this immanence it adds a sexually charged, even sadistic interest in the flesh, a pack of talking worms, and an attempt to imagine an alliance between flesh and the worms that sprang from its own putrefaction. This chapter treats each of these elements singly: flesh, desire, and identification; then worms, both as a challenge both to a main line of critical animal theory and, in their spontaneous generation, to metaphors of vitality, animation, and liveliness;  and finally, briefly, a consideration of the poem’s particular interest in the ineluctable edibility of human and other flesh.

A worldly engagement with this poetry thus requires interrupting its celestial message and concentrating on what it does with its bodies. To clarify my approach, I divide the presentations of the corpses into three categories: dry, dusty, and wet. This heuristic comes not from the medieval texts themselves, and certainly not from late medieval medicine, which might offer a different, equally serviceable schema via its development of the Aristotelian notion that the body’s “radical moisture” gradually desiccated until death, at which point, the environment’s heat and moisture overwhelmed and consumed the now defenseless corpse.[12] Rather, I draw my approach, with some modifications, from two sources: Maurice Bloch’s anthropological observations of the social pollutions of the “wet” putrefactions of corpses, marked as especially feminine; and from the more fanciful anthropology of Georges Bataille, who seeks human limits in refusing to deny the horror of the “prodigality of life,” “the slimy menace of death,” and our anguish over “that nauseous, rank, and heaving matter, frightful to look upon, a ferment of life, teeming with worms, grubs, and eggs.”[13]

Bloch and Bataille unsurprisingly oppose dryness to wetness. Bataille calls dry bones “pacifi[ed],”[14] while Bloch describes how the male-dominated Merina of the Madagascar highlands reintegrate the bones of dead relatives into their community once the flesh has rotted off.[15] The subject of dry death has been briefly interrupted by dying, but then, after a time, it carries on in some fashion through its remains, a word that should be heard in both senses, as what is left over and as what persists. Think here of the skull in memento mori paintings, a reminder of death, but as much a reminder of the persistence of some kind of human, if anonymous, recognizability.

A dusty death, considered by neither Bloch nor Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt—the “where are the former glories” poetry of lament—with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.”[16] The Ash Wednesday service, for example, bypasses our foundational muddiness in Genesis 2:7, where we are made “de limo” [from the mud], to tell us, via Genesis 3:19, “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” [remember man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again to dust]. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies calls dust (pulvis) “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put.”[17] Unfertile and formless, used up and useless, this matter, nearly not matter at all, is the quiet nothingness to which humans will finally return. This is what a small poem in the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, “This World Fares as a Fantasy,” tells us when it explains “Þus waxeth & wanteþ Mon, hors, & honed; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe”[18] [thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. The Middle English Death and Liffe just as dustily characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate shee grindeth all to powder;

trees tremble for ffeare and tipen to the ground;

leaues lighten downe lowe and leauen their might;

fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,

and the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme.[19]

[in her walking, she grinds the green grass to powder; trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground; leaves fall down and lose their powder; birds fail to flee when they flap their wings vigorously, and the fishes in the water fail to swim.]

And, of course, dusty death’s modern locus classicus, the origin of the term, appears in Macbeth, in which life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. In a model both absolutely private and absolutely privative, dusty death concludes all strife, effort, and existence. Dusty death works as a model only for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. They believe the (presumptive) end of their thinking means the end, full stop. But their material of course continues. They will continue to be made useful to others, some human, but hardly all.

Recognizing this leads us to the wet model, which concentrates not on the disappearance of the subject, but on putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate in and around corpses. Late medieval death art loved to tell humans that they were “esca vermium” [food for worms].[20] The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave to see “inde scatendem vermium colluviem” [“there a mass teeming with worms”].[21] The human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. A millennium after Caesarius, a fifteenth-century tale imagines a wicked young ruler reformed by peering into his father’s grave and seeing “wormes and snakes etyng opon hym”[22] [worms and snakes eating him]. Disgusted at what he once admired, now realizing that kings and pauper comes to the same, anonymous end, the ruler commissions a painting of the corpse, which he displays on his bedroom wall as a constant reminder to disdain all worldly glory. The Awyntyrs of Arthur, also from the fourteenth century, has Gawain meet the horrific ghost of Guinevere’s mother, whose skull a hungry toad bites and whose body is “serkeled wih serpents all about the sides”[23] [encircled with serpents all around]. Similar citations could be provided virtually without end, but here I offer just one more, from the Disputation. Far from finding rest in the grave, the poem’s Body instead suffers the gustatory and moral harassment of an explosion of life dedicated, in all senses of the word, to reforming her. Just before winning the argument, the worms brag to Body about their hosts of allied vermin:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,

Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,

Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,

Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,

Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,

Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,

Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.[24]

[The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon, The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake, The toad, the mole, and the scorpion, The viper, the snake, and the adder, The toad, the ant, and the crab, The spider, the maggots, and the newt, The water leech, and the others are not far behind.]

The list’s bravura excessiveness insists on the endless utility of the material we thought ours. Consumed by so many mouths, the body abandons her efforts at self-possession. She knows herself to be helpless, food for a host of others, as she has been from the moment she took shape in this world. The process could stop with her reversion to dust, but to get to this arid and formless condition, one gullet after another must be finished with her and with each other in turn. The ashy end cannot arrive until everything is ashes, until, that is, all appetites cease.


The 218-line Disputation survives only in British Library, Additional 37049, a much studied mid-fifteenth-century miscellany likely produced for or in a Northern English charterhouse, that is, a Carthusian monastery.[25] Medieval debate poetry includes arguments between scholars and knights, water and wine, various birds, and many postmortem debates between body and soul;[26] but the Disputation is the only one of these latter type with a specifically female gendered body, and, to boot, certainly the only one featuring a body at odds, so to speak, with its own edibility.

The poem’s action is as follows: It opens with its narrator escaping a plague and entering a church to pray. There, he encounters a new, freshly painted tomb, personalized with coats of arms and a copper plate engraved with the image of a fashionable woman.[27] The narrator swoons—“rapt and rauesched from my selfe” (25; rapt and ravished from my self) and, in a vision, witnesses the disputation. In it, Body protests the loss of her former beauty under the violence of the “most vnkynde neghbours þat euer war wroght” (44; the most unnatural/improper neighbors that were ever made). The worms insist that they will not leave “while þat one of þi bones with oþer wil hange” (59; while one of your bones still adheres to another), because they want only to feast on flesh. When Body threatens the worms with the warriors she commanded in life, the worms mock her with a typical ubi sunt catalog of departed worthies—Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Arthur, Dido, and others—all of whom ended up as wormfood too. The worms remind Body that she always been infested with hungry vermin. Finally accepting this lesson on the vanity of worldly glory, Body awaits the Last Judgment, when she will rise again and be glorified. Then the narrator awakes and briefly recounts the clerical imprimatur granted this vision and its subsequent versification.

The Disputation has been often and correctly numbered among a host of late medieval memento mori and contemptus mundi works, which instruct people to prepare for their eventual death and to abandon the mutable and temporary pleasures of this world for the permanent rewards of heaven.[28] These studies remain faithful both to the poem’s moral conclusion and to the first two, especially the second, of its five illustrations: the first shows the narrator kneeling before a gruesome crucifix, an image both of suffering flesh and, at least implicitly, of that flesh’s promised perfection. The gendering of corpse and visionary, one a woman, the other a man, allows for a straightforward interpretation of the poem as a whole: obviously the Disputation abjects putrefaction onto the feminized body. As is well known, the late medieval culture of celibate male clerics is just one hot zone of the habit of male-identified people to perform their disappointment  with and superiority to the flux and interdependency of material existence by insulting women.[29] This habit would have been practiced with particular intensity in Carthusian environs like the one that produced the compilation in which this poem survives. Women, particularly old or laboring women, were made to emblematize the failure of all corporeal delights, all that inevitably goes awry with costume, beauty, desire, sex. The few who went along with the program might be exempted, for instance, a few other women illustrated in this compilation: the Virgin Mary, or its handful of saints, like Mary of Egypt, pictured with a body concealed under her own cascade of thick hair.[30] Most other women, though, were made to be not bodies but flesh: if the body is ordered, neatly bounded, suitable, for example, for political metaphors (the “head” of state, and so on), flesh here represents the disorganized, pullulating remainder.[31] One body, the male visionary’s, kneels; the other, the woman’s, rots, liquefying into flesh and from there to ash. Thus the poem’s Body is herself made to say that all should “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189; avoid fleshly temptation), and that she too, even at this late stage, has to unlearn her own attachment to her flesh, just as the poem’s presumptively male-identified readers have to work up a horror for the fleshy existence they share with her.[32]

The poem’s grave and its horrid contents are therefore the interior of a cordon sanitaire into whose horrific interior these readers can clamber to safely explore the failures of their or any body. The poem’s narrator, the visionary, is their obvious stand-in. No stoic, his relationship to his own body, and the suffering bodies of others, is one of fear, horror, and, given the right body, honor: he arrives in the poem fleeing the plague, and then worships before a lurid image of the bleeding Christ. “Ravished” into a vision, he witnesses exactly what he should loathe, another incarnated form of the mortal delights of the world he had just fled. But if the vision is to do its work, the abjection needs to be minimally enacted, with the loathing for this corpse circling back to become self-loathing.  This dynamic is, in other words, not one of simply “othering,” but rather one of dialectical identification.

Elsewhere in this compilation, for example, an emperor has his pride tamed by being taken by his steward to his father’s grave. The emperor has the tomb opened, finds a stinking, worm-eaten body within, and then the emperor and his father’s corpse converse:

Þan sayd þe son, “Horrybil bestes restys with þe.” Þe voice sayd, “Thow sal cum and reste with me.” Þan sayd þe son, “Thy fayr flesche falls and fadys away.” “Son, so sal þine do, þat is now so gay.”[33]
[Then the son said, “Horrible beasts rest with you.” The voice said, “You shall come and rest with me.” Then the son said, “Your attractive flesh falls and fades away.” “Son, so shall yours do, which is now so elegant.]

With the son’s voice written in a column on the left, the father’s on the right, and the whole enclosed in a banderole, the conversation occurs in a frame that draws present flesh and future putrefaction into one field, not a conversational sequence but rather a completed admonition. So long as he identifies with his father—and he must, as the tomb’s carved figure of the dead emperor looks virtually identical to the body of the living one—the emperor will be made to know that his vital present is just the promise of an inevitable future. At minimum, the Disputation also requires identification like this. But only at minimum. Assuming what we can clumsily call a dominant heterosexuality,[34] the male-identified visionary is supposed less to want to be what the corpse was (an emperor, for example) than he is supposed to want the body itself. “Sex,” Masha Raskolnikov observes, “haunt[s] the rhetoric of all Body/Soul debates,”[35] but nowhere else in the tradition does this specter assume quite so material a form. Consider the famous encounter of the three living and three dead, but imagine in this case that the dead, with their statements of “what you are, I once was,” and so on, had once been sexually desirable to the living.

This is why the Dreamer must also be identified with the worms too, because they mark out a space of difference between the Dreamer and the (female) Body, so that desire can be enacted, but piously, which is to say, in this case, through loathing and punishment. By speaking the most orthodox lessons in ascetic disgust, the “phallic”[36] worms play the part of the wise men, the angel, or the other knowing figures in other such stories. As a man, the visionary can join this crowd of Big Others in lecturing this woman about the proper, disdainful relation to the flesh, hers and his—with full mouths. This in a Carthusian manuscript, a product of an order that was, by the fifteenth century, infamous for its fanatic vegetarianism![37] As if doubling down on the hypocrisy, the worms explain that they know how disgusting their meal is, even if they cannot feel the disgust: “If we, as bestes, had smellyng & tastynge, / Trows þou þat we wald towche þi caryone playne? / Nay, parde, we wald it voyde for certayne!” (69-71; if we, as beasts, had the capacities to smell or taste, do you think that we would touch your bare carrion? No, by God, we would certainly vomit it out!). And, of course, the worms themselves, being unpaternally sprung from the stuff of disorganized flesh—a point I treat in detail in my section on spontaneous generation below—can hardly be identified only as masculine figures.

This is not the compilation’s only overdetermined entanglement of flesh, self, authority, retribution, and asceticism. A short poem, set down a few pages before the Disputation, features a falconer who entices a restless bird to return by showing it a hunk of “rede flesche”;[38] so too, it explains, does Christ draw us back, where we can join him on the “cros of penaunce” through “discrete poneyschyng of thi body.” Jessica Brantley dryly remarks that “the poem sets up a number of complex equivalences”:[39] Christ is falconer, but also meat, while the reader is a falcon whose submission to Christ transforms him into both “meat and crucified savior.” What the Disputation adds to this is sexual desire and gender transformation: the visionary has to want this woman, or someone like her, or he has at least to imagine himself superior to anyone who would have been taken in by her. He wants the ascetic lesson inflicted on her for what she and others like her make him want, but at the same time he has to know himself as her too, because unless he recognizes her body as like his own, this ouroboric lesson simply cannot take.

Of course, it matters that the male visionary gets the gift of humiliation by tarrying with a rotten woman. Put bluntly, the Disputation is about a man scared of death who draws solace and wisdom from watching a beautiful woman putrefy. In this system, she should be humiliated, because she is a woman; and if only he would understand himself correctly, he can choose to be humiliated too. The emperor of the parable comes to know that the mighty are finally brought low; the dreamer of this poem, that the attractive, but socially semi-subaltern (given Body’s nobility), are really to be scorned, but also that, when it comes to our bodies, he is not really so different from them. This lesson is meant for all, generated from her body and her comeuppance. But when poem ends with the dreamer telling both “Man & Woman…al lustes for to lefe” [215; men and women to leave all lusts], and indeed with Body intoning “What he salbe & also what is he / Be it he or sche, be þai neuer so fayr, bewar / Of pryde” (184-6; what he shall be, and also what he is, whether it be a he or she, no matter how attractive they are, beware of pride), these universal lessons, for men and women both, erase the distinction between lust for the other and lust for the self that that drives the poem’s weird drama. In particular, it erases how this story of sanctimonious retribution draws its vocabulary, as Elizabeth Robertson observes, from the pastourelle poetry of rape.[40] One lesson we might draw from this: ecocritical writing on flows of identity and material immanence must always remember what bodies are made to be naturally suitable for their lessons:[41] I know of no medieval death vision of a woman looking, lips tightened with disgust, into the grave of a man.

Creeping Things

Criticism of the Disputation almost invariably reproduces its second illustration, a tomb on whose lid is a lifelike sculpture of a well-dressed woman, and below which is a cut-away view of the grave itself, where worms and other vermin swarm a rotting corpse. The illustration thus resembles a fashionable late medieval “double” version of the transi or cadaver monument.[42] The top level of a typical tomb of this sort had a sculpture of the body as it appeared in the prime of life, costumed in institutional regalia or its best finery; in its lower level, the body as an emaciated corpse, naked or draped barely with a shroud, sometimes putrefying, with exposed entrails and beset with toads, snakes, crocodiles, and other vermin and anthropophages.[43] English examples of such double monuments, nearly contemporary with the Disputation manuscript, include those of Bishop Richard Fleming (constructed before 1431) at Lincoln Cathedral and of Henry Chichele (constructed 1424) at Canterbury Cathedral.[44] On the upper level, then, the tomb displays the perfected future body of the resurrection, or the entombed subject’s idealized selfhood in the pride of its worldly life; below, the tomb represents what resurrection will correct, or the fraudulence of the ideal self in this mutable world. Those who encountered the tomb were meant at once to admire the dead, to speed them through purgatory with their prayers, and, piously disgusted, to reflect on the fleetingness of worldly glory and their own inevitable deaths.

Because of these calls to the living, tombs like these were less markers of loss than of a deadly, insistent presence. The tomb of the Disputation may represent a woman in the pride of her life—admired by her peers, feared and hated by monks, scorned by God, and now humiliated—but she has seen fit to make advance arrangements to have herself speak, through her tomb, the most orthodox sentiments about worldly contempt. This illustration’s own monumental verse demands that we “take hede vnto my figure here abowne / And se how sumtyne I was fressche & gay / Now turned to wormes mete & corrupcone” [take heed of my figure here above, now turned to worms’ food and corruption]; the final lines, circled in red banderole to encourage excerpting as a sententia, or wise statement, “when þou leste wenes, venit mors te superare / when þi grafe grenes. bonum est mortis meditari” [when you least expect it, death comes and overcomes you; when the grass is green, it is good to have death in mind]. Far from giving the self entirely over to death, cadaver monuments thus borrow the longevity of stone, brass, and engraved verse to grant humans as much perpetuity as this world offers, simultaneously announcing a contempt for worldly existence while demanding the remembrance of a subject hiding behind the supposed anonymity of a corpse. Consider the following excerpt from an early fifteenth-century verse, “My lief life that livest in wealth,” in which a corpse catalogs its decay:

In mi riggeboon bredith an addir kene,

Min eiyen dasewyn swithe dimme:

Mi guttis rotin, myn heer is green,

My teeth grennen swithe grymme.[45]

[In my spin breeds a fierce adder, my failed eyes dim very much: my guts rot, my hair is green, my teeth grin so grim.]

This deliquescent striptease does not let itself out into or even past the furthest reaches of loss, as each line’s anaphoric repetition of the possessive pronoun—“mi riggeboon,” “min eiyen,” “mi guttis,” “my teeth”—maintain the body as as cynosure. As with cadaver monuments, hungry vermin move through the body’s flesh or rest on top of it, or they orbit it as a kind of creeping mandorla. Focused on us, the vermin are as much of secondary importance to our existence as the faithful dogs that so often lay, smiling and besotted, at the feet of the central, human bodies of late medieval recumbent tomb sculpture.

Taken as a whole, the Disputation breaks sharply from this model. Its remaining three illustrations show an emaciated corpse standing, its face a skull, marked as a woman by its fashionable head-dress. She is not surrounded by tiny figures. Instead, she looks either up or down at four “mawkes” (112; maggots), each as large as her limbs, occupying as much pictorial space as she does. As in the poem’s text, where the worms have 11 rhyme-royal stanzas to the corpse’s 14, worms and corpse share space almost equally. The dreamer explains that the corpse and the worms are “strangly ilk one oþer corespondynge” (27; each one strangely alike the other), each engaging the other “in maner of a dyaloge” (28; in the manner of a dialogue). Here, surprised to be engaged in a dialogue—or something like a dialogue—humans have been dislodged from their presumption that theirs is the only story worth telling, and that their own death simply means the end, full stop.

This section explores how this weird encounter undermines the pieties of both critical animal theory and medieval death art: the former through its swarms of hungry creatures, whose unruliness frustrates any deliberate humiliation of human privilege, the later through the poem’s presentation of an inescapable, immanent activity in the grave, without any obvious promise of rescue or conclusion. In this poem, Body shares life and death with the worms, amid an ongoing, impersonal creativity of a matter that, on occasion, coalesces temporarily into subjects. Observations like these would not surprise anyone who’s read recent posthumanism from Stacy Alaimo to Joanna Zylinska; my particular contribution, as a medievalist, will be to explore these ideas through the “automatic” and unpaternal process of spontaneous generation. This famously discredited notion, treated at length below, offers a way not only to account for the worms and their strange position in hierarchies of creation, but also, as I’ll argue, to help us jettison metaphors of liveliness, animation, and other such quasi-divine concepts, so that ecocritics, posthumanists, and their fellow travelers might arrive at a much more thoroughgoing materialism.

The foundational moment for critical animal theory is Derrida’s naked encounter with his cat.[46] The cat comes across Derrida just as he’s emerged from the shower, and, so far as Derrida thinks, looks at his penis, “without touching yet, and without biting, although that threat remains on its lips or on the tip of its tongue.” Derrida feels ashamed and a bit ashamed of his shame; he follows this by sketching the philosophical distinctions between self-aware nudity and unwitting nakedness, and from there he dismantles the pretensions of the “carnophallogocentric” humanist tradition. To suspend, refuse, or delegitimize human supremacy, to oppose those who take “no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ can look at them, and address them from down there”[47] Derrida does not just look at his cat, but allows himself to linger in the uneasiness of being “seen seen” in his own cat’s eyes. This cat, he insists, is not a “figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth”:[48] like Derrida’s, this look is from somewhere, not impersonal, not disembodied, not abstract, and certainly without any pretense of invulnerability. With this in mind, Derrida summons Jeremy Bentham’s reframing of traditional methods of weighing the relative worth of human and nonhuman lives. Typically, humans claim that nonhuman irrationality means that only humans count as ethical subjects. Bentham, however, argues that the important question is not whether nonhumans can speak, or reason, but whether they can suffer. In this reframing Derrida discovers the “nonpower at the heart of power”; it’s not that he can reason and his cat cannot, but that he and his cat both share the condition—crucially, not a capacity—of being unable not to be exposed to suffering or at least to injury, a condition that is itself a subset of the general secondariness and incompleteness of any subject within any play of being. Whatever we can do, we all share a fundamental inability. We’re in this together.

Sort of: as several other people have observed, cats are particularly useful for troubling humanism. Though Derrida insists that the cat does not “represent, like an ambassador, the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race,”[49] it is also a member of cultural class—like Derrida himself, who surely represents the immense weight of the philosophical tradition. Cats are unfamiliar familiars, independent, nocturnal, clever carnivores we want to let stay with us, who kill without our supervision and often without our approval.[50] Derrida follows out this feline uncanniness still further: though his cat is female, he often refers to her in the masculine as chat: had he consistently called it a chatte, it might have been more obviously a vagina dentata, staring, perhaps hungrily, perhaps indifferently, at his penis, since une chatte can be, as in English, a “pussy.”[51] Its uncertain or shifting gender renders it a little elusive, a little resistant to being boxed up in certain meaning. A dog would have been homier, perhaps more suited to blend itself happily with Derrida, like Haraway’s own Ms Cayenne Pepper, whose “darter-tongue kisses” occasion “potent transfections” of DNA between dog and academic. By contrast, the cat’s simultaneous shared vulnerability and “unsubstitutable” feline “singularity”[52] makes this a face-to-face meeting characterized by negotiation, indifference, and perhaps what could have been play, had Derrida stooped to touching his cat, or, had the cat been interested, letting it touch him: Haraway’s disappointment on this point are more than apt.[53] There is just enough of a mutual threat—the cat’s teeth, Derrida’s humanity—to establish the relation to the Other typical of the Derridean/Levinasian ethics of infinite responsibility.

But what can our relationship to faceless animals be? Still more, what can our relationship be to faceless, hungry animals? Medieval literature is replete with anthropophagous beasts: whales, boars, the baby dragons that suck out the German hero Ortnit through the joints of his own invulnerable armor, and so on.[54] Critical animal theory that tangles with the Middle Ages must take account of this peculiar feature of its storytelling. Even Derrida’s room would have swarmed with mites, spiders, and other tiny life, all of which too might have taken an interest in some part of him as he stepped naked from his shower. The question with such masses is not how we might save them from our violence, but rather whether we can or should pay them any mind, or how we could count them. Critical animal theorists have often wished Levinas had recognized the face of the dog Bobby, one of the stars of his short piece about an animal encounter while he survived a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp;[55] but though Levinas is particularly reluctant to recognize a snake as having a face,[56] few have thought to challenge him for this. Swarming life has no place in analyses focused on animal rights and struggles to reduce or eliminate the cruelties of, for example, factory farming.[57] It is not so easily personalized, perhaps because it is so indifferent to us, and, as a mass, so irrepressible, even invulnerable, or hostile, or hungry. 

Among swarming life, bees, admired as “model insects,”[58] are almost uniquely domesticated; in several medieval stories, bees, the sole domesticated creeping thing, even surround consecrated hosts left in their hives in waxy Gothic cathedral.[59] But because most other swarming things were just annoyances, or worse, because, in other words, they interrupted the “anthropological machine” of domination through which humans convinced themselves of their superiority, medieval champions of human difference sought desperately for some assurance that even this supposedly most insignificant form of life had been created for our sakes. Gervase of Tilbury’s twelfth-century wonder collection, for example, explains that God made “cattle, the creeping things, and the beasts—the cattle to help us, the creeping things and the beasts to challenge us—in the last place he fashioned man.”[60] By humiliating and harassing us, the creeping things remind us to fix our concentration to eternal things. That, at least, is how it should work. Gervase’s contemporary Gerald of Wales tells a story that muddles even this stopgap explanation. There was once an ailing Welshman to whom “it seemed as if the entire local population of toads had made an agreement to go to visit.” Though his friends kill “vast numbers,” the swarm grows again “like the heads of the Hydra. . . . Toads came flocking from all directions, more and more of them, until no one could count them.” Apparently lacking a better plan, his comrades stuff their sick companion into a bag, strip a tree of most of its branches, and hoist their toad-afflicted friend into its summit. Undaunted, the toads scale the tree and when they come back to ground, nothing of the Welshman remained “but his skeleton.”[61] Fumbling for an explanation, Gerald cites the inscrutable judgment of God, but what the story finally offers is one in which swarming life slips away entirely from the human supremacy that uneasily grounds human difference.

Gerald’s toads are cousins to the worms of the Disputation. Crucially, the Disputation manuscript outfits each its enormous worms with only single dot that does no more than suggest an eye. This featurelessness refuses anthropomorphic appropriation, negotiation, and the optic cliché of the “window to the soul” that promises a transcendent, extracorporal spirit worth cherishing. Instead, these interested dots are less the mark of a face than of an appetite, calling attention only to how they make use of Body, how they destroy the characteristic arrogance of the human, namely, its unidirectional and therefore parasitic exploitation of everything else.[62]

Nor do the worms even offer the cold comfort of being something from out there; they are not the outside, and though undomesticated, they are not particularly undomestic, as they have always been with us. When Body complains, they tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), commanding them:

Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;

Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,

And after come with þe to our regyowne,

þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)

[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].

The corpse protests by citing scripture, “bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle” (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man’s summons). The worms counter, “Þat power dures whils man has lyfe…now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe” (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable hunger, the corpse cannot get free. Nor was she ever free: Body has been reminded that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] in your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). In discovering herself to be food, she also discovers herself to have been food all along, an unwitting host to a world of others. Or even worse: one source for the Disputation is the De miseria condicionis humanae [On the Misery of the Human Condition], Pope Innocent III’s enormously popular 1195 tract on death; there he wrote, “Vivus, gignit pediculos et lumbricos; mortuus, generabit vermes et muscas” [Alive, he brings forth lice and tapeworms; dead he begets worms and flies].[63] The question, then, is when the worms say that “neytes in þi hede alway,” the Middle English preposition “in”can mean either “on” or “in,” or both:[64] nits, like lice, may crawl on you, but they also crawl out of you. The object of the complaint of Body, then, is Body itself and its own, dispossessive multitudinous vitality.

We can observe, then, how readily the “food for worms” topos offers itself as a textual pre-history to recent frequent (and welcome) bacterial perorations, all enthusiastic recognitions that so-called individual humans are all pastures for or collaborators with swarms of other life, indifferent to our parochial illusion of solitude or self-mastery. I offer two examples:

The surfaces of living beings are envelopes and filters, thick regions where complex chemical transfers and reactions take place….At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down.[65]

Jane Bennett similarly glosses an observation that “the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome,” with “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes.”[66] In what sense could we possibly dominate these multitudinous things? What could we possibly owe them, other than, perhaps, what W. H. Auden offered his microbes in his 1969 “A New Year Greeting” (“Yeasts, / Bacteria, Viruses, / Aerobics and Anaerobics: / A Very Happy New Year / to all”). What distinguishes the Disputation from these observations, so eager to release the liberal humanist subject into a crowded “sympoesis” (Haraway’s favored concept), is both that this crowd of internal others want to eat us – the subject of this chapter’s final section – and that they are not our essential fellow travelers. Less benign, they are, rather, the stuff of our own dissolution.

 Crawling Matter

Medieval matter is perforated by a host of abysses. As Isidore of Seville explains, worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus in fat.”[67] This strange vitality, the subject of this section, is life without any of the spiritual, genealogical, or reproductive qualities normally associated with this concept. This is a life that challenges God’s creative monopoly, divisions between agent and object, human mastery, and the division between spirit and matter, and information and form, that enables the fantasy of some separable, immaterial quality called “life.”

Medieval natural science held like typically produced like, as with the following:

so nature, once put in motion by the Divine command, traverses creation with an equal step, through birth and death, and keeps up the succession of kinds through resemblance, to the last. Nature always makes a horse succeed to a horse, a lion to a lion, an eagle to an eagle, and preserving each animal by these uninterrupted successions she transmits it to the end of all things. Animals do not see their peculiarities destroyed or effaced by any length of time; their nature, as though it had been just constituted, follows the course of ages, for ever young.[68]

There were inherent difficulties even with this general claim, because larvae tend not to resemble adult insects, and especially because even normative models of reproduction required the fundamental unlikeness of sexual difference.[69] But even these difficulties often maintained some figure, the male for example, as the primary or exclusive cause. The contrast to this generatio univoca, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice (voca from vox, voice), was generatio equivoca, generation from an ambiguous source, the typical medieval term for spontaneous generation.[70] Aristotle’s natural science was the key resource, as when he spoke of:

some insects not derived from living parentage, but . . . generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves . . . others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.[71]

Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century Aristotelian commentary makes exactly the same point: “One must respond that some animals are generated from propagation, and some from putrefaction. In those generated from putrefaction there are no members designated for generation, because they are not generated from semen.”[72] Bartholomew the Englishman’s fourteenth-century encyclopedia explains that the louse is “yngendered of most, corrupt ayer and vapours þat sweten oute bitwen þe felleand the fleissch by pores” (birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores); the snail in “lyme oþer of lyme and is þerfore alway foule and vnclene” (lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean); butterflies lay eggs in fruit and “bredeþ þerinne wormes þat comeþ of here stynkynge filþe” (breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth); fleas lay eggs without “medlyng [mixing] of male and female”; and, more generally:

A worme hatte vermis and is a beste þat ofte gendreþ of fleisse and of herbes and gendreþ ofte of caule, and somtyme of corrupcioun of humours, and somtyme of medlynge of male and femele, and somtyme of eyren, as it fareþ of scorpiouns, tortuses, and euetes.

A worm is called “vermis” and is a beast that often is birthed from flesh and plants and often birthed from cabbage, and sometimes from putrefaction of humors, and sometimes from mixing of male and female [i.e., sexual reproduction], and sometimes from eggs, as it occurs with scorpions, tortoises, and newts.[73]

No one seems to have found this science anything but common sense. Basil the Great, fourth-century Bishop of Caesarea, remarks that on hot rainy days in Thebes, hordes of field mice swarm from the earth and the “mud alone produce[s] eels; they do not proceed from an egg, nor in any other manner; it is the earth alone which gives them birth.” [74] Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies just as blandly observes that “many people know from experience that bees are born from the carcasses of oxen,” hornets from horses, “drones from mules, and wasps from asses.”[75] Without any expectation of disagreement, Augustine explains that Noah did not need to gather spontaneously generated lifeforms, because God specifically commanded him to gather only male and female animals, in other words, those generated through sexual reproduction, and anyway vermin would have infested the ark, as they do any house, “not in any determinate numbers.”[76]

The problem was not the presumptive truth of this natural science but rather how spontaneous generation challenged God’s monopoly on creation. If this life comes from putrefaction, and if the created world was perfect before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, then creeping things of this sort may have emerged only after God has done his work of creation. Though creeping life, reptiles in Latin, is created twice in the Bible’s first creation story, in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24, it is notably almost entirely absent from medieval artistic depictions of creation, whether in manuscript illumination or church sculpture, as if acknowledging, through their absence, that this form of life had yet to emerge in the first, perfect days of our world.[77] Medieval Christian thinkers offered a range of solutions. According to Duns Scotus, stars operated on a cow’s corpse, inscribing the matter in such a way that it might produce bees;[78] a work ascribed to Albert the Great similarly explains that when the sun heats rotting matter, trapped heat causes vibrations within the matter, which produce spirit, and thus life.[79] Albert the Great himself insists that animals sprung from putrefaction require:

a superior power and an inferior power. The inferior power disposes the matter for putrefaction, into which, once it has been disposed, the celestial power is introduced, operating on the matter just as sperm operates on the menses. And this is why, just as the power of the sperm disposes the menses to the form of a perfect animal, so the celestial power operates through an elemental power on matter that is disposed to the form of an imperfect animal.[80]

The most widely recognized resolution to the problem belongs to Augustine’s On the Trinity. In the course of examining the competing serpent-creating miracles between Moses and the magicians of Pharaoh’s court (Exodus 7:10–12), Augustine explains that demons have no power to create matter, and neither, in fact, does anything else but God. Rather, during Creation God had “interwoven” a “natural seminal power” in all life from which they produced particular kinds of seemingly new things[81] (elsewhere, in a Genesis commentary, he suggests that these seeds might have been implanted on the third day, along with the seeds of plants[82]). Though putrefaction had not yet happened at the time of Creation, supposedly spontaneous life has already been provided for by God’s foresight. All these explanations sought to keep God ultimately responsible, and, through that, to preserve hierarchies between object and agent, matter and spirit, and the host of other inequitable distinctions these supported.

What’s at stake these answers becomes still clearer in the waning days of spontaneous generation, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and its more recent return under a new guise. The typical story is one that culminates in Louis Pasteur’s conclusive demonstration that a sufficiently sterile environment would prevent even the smallest microbes from arising, and with that, a conclusive demonstration that things in themselves have no power to bring forth something new. The counternarrative is perhaps equally familiar: some thirty years ago, the story of the death of spontaneous generation became a key site for the social history of knowledge, in which the victory of Pasteur over Felix Archimede Pouchet could be understood not simply as the rise and triumph of experimental science over ancient superstition but instead, or at least also, as a victory of Pasteur’s Catholicism and Imperial sympathies over Pouchet’s Protestant Republicanism, differences that themselves correspond to two distinctive understandings of what matter can do.[83] In 1864, Louis Pasteur denounced spontaneous generation as an ally of atheism: “what a triumph, gentlemen, it would be for materialism if it could affirm that it rests on the established fact of matter organizing itself, taking on life of itself.’”[84] In the same year, Pasteur again argued:

If we also granted matter this other force we call life, life in all its many manifestations, varying as it does according to the conditions under which it is encountered, what would be more natural but to deify it? What could then be gained from recourse to the notion of an original creation, to whose mystery we must defer? What use the idea of a divine Creator?[85]

Roughly 180 years earlier, Ralph Cudsworth’s massive True Intellectual System of the Universe had made exactly the same point without feeling compelled to don scientific costume: “to assert . . . that all the effects of nature come to pass by material and mechanical necessity, or the mere fortuitous motion of matter, without any guidance or direction, is a thing no less irrational than it is impious and atheistical.”[86] To preserve reason, which, for both Pasteur and Cudsworth, is much the same thing as preserving God, matter must be dependent, ultimately, on some divine or quasi-divine monopoly on a final creative power.

Cudsworth’s late seventeenth-century contemporaries Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Jan Swammerdam examined insects and other tiny life microscopically and came to similar conclusions.[87] In this little world, they discovered a richness of detail, which, each argued, could never have arisen spontaneously from rotting, filthy, or coagulating matter. Insect wings were a particular surprise. They surely worked within the old traditions inherited from Aristotle and Albert the Great in which the more perfect an animal, the more differentiated its parts. Leeuwenhoek and Swammerdam must have been astonished to find such complexity and beauty in what they expected would be imperfect and undifferentiated. The defense of old ideas needed new thought, for, as Swammerdam observed, if such creatures could arise from filth, then other complex creatures—humans, in particular—could ultimately arise in just the same way.

The campaign against spontaneous generation and the various incongruent, profane materialisms must therefore be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits. Likewise, the recent intensification of interest in nonhuman materialisms are not a sign of the return of fecund medieval materiality, not least of all because there is no one medieval attitude about matter. Caroline Walker Bynum observes, for example, that later fifteenth-century scholars were more likely to think of magnets as alive than did their thirteenth-century peers.[88] At the least, knowing how the war on spontaneous generation allies with the defense of human and divine supremacy explains why various early modern scientists defended the doctrine of bodily resurrection even as they dismantled the received natural history.[89]

The line cannot be between medieval and modern or superstition and science but rather between acceptances of material immanence and a faith in immaterial transcendence, and, by extension, a belief in clear lines between decisive agents and mere objects. Augustine, Swammerdam, Pasteur, and their many inheritors all insist on transcendence, their own especially, continuing to enable, for example, the belief that some humans are more agential and some base, bestial, instinctual, deserving only mastery. To repurpose Cary Wolfe, who himself draws on Gayatri Spivak’s critique of humanism, “We all, human and nonhuman alike, have a stake in the discourse and institution of speciesism” and anti-materialism, “because the discourse of speciesism,” or the certainty in a neat division between object and subject, “can be used to mark any social other”[90] for mere use, domination, or violent regimes of control.

Even or especially when insisting that others should not be treated like objects, those whom we might call naïve subjectivists more or less wittingly continue to draw a line around themselves and their God to call themselves subjects while declaring whatever remains outside an object. The border must be understood as grammatical, per Nietzsche’s famous critique in Twilight of the Idols of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject. The end of Nietzsche’s critique is well known: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”[91] In short, spontaneous generation is godless. It is ungrammatical, like generation itself if tracked back far enough. Darwin himself admitted this in a letter written not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet where he recognized that life must be at its origin abiogenetic.[92] To put all this another way: at the very moment spontaneous generation was giving way to modern science, abiogenesis returned, with what we call life aimlessly generated by the impersonal, restless creativity of nonlife.

The differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research of course should not be obscured or dashed past. I insist on the ungrammatical quality of what we call life even while accepting, as I must, the general narrative of the defeat of spontaneous generation.[93] Origin of life research hypotheses about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; it provides irreversible historical narratives, with key transitional points, of the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over. Life requires at least a combination of both genetic continuity and an openness to the environment that allows for adaptation, which is to say, life requires cross-generational genetic continuity and discontinuity. Spontaneous generation by contrast is discontinuous, as much a closed loop in its own way as pre-Darwinian assertions that like always produces like: filth produces flies, the flies die and return to filth, and so on. And unlike origin of life research, spontaneous generation may be inscrutable but it does not relegate its processes to the great temporal distances of the hundred-million-year rise of DNA out of RNA or to the great speed of chemical reactions occurring in a millionth of a second. Spontaneous generation happens right before us, though, of course, it does not actually happen, as we now know. Yet matter still swarms, in mundane, perhaps inevitable ways that require no transcendent divine catalyst, or any supposedly atheological equivalent, to get going.

That is, the key challenge of spontaneous generation is its disruptions of agent/object divisions and the hierarchical divisions they support, including that between immaterial life and mere matter. As I observed above, many thinkers held the sun or even every celestial body responsible for spontaneous generation, explaining that when rotting matter was heated with the right kind of heat, a membrane formed that trapped the heat, which, in sought to escape, vibrating the matter, and thus forced a soul, and with that, life. It would be a short intellectual step to propose a fully material concept of the soul, distinguishable in function from matter, but not as a separable, independent principle of identity. To my knowledge, only one medieval thinker in Latin followed these thoughts to this point, without seeking succor in some quasi divine force: this was Blaise of Parma (ca. 1347–1416), whose Quaestiones de anima (Questions on the Soul) formulates a “materialistic concept of the soul”[94] that denies the soul’s separability from matter and therefore its immortality. From this idea, he then proposed that all animals, not just gnats, bees, mice, toads, and the like, emerged spontaneously from the mud after Noah’s Flood,[95] and argued, finally, that, at least theoretically, even humans and the rational soul could emerge from this process. Blaise allowed that things come to be from form imprinting itself on matter, but, in contradistinction to most thinkers, the imprinting form of his model was entirely immanent to materiality. He was eventually forced to recant these views. Here we can observe a process that produced souls of all sorts in the same way that minerals were thought to be, through an interaction between earth and sky.[96] All of this activity happens through the acentric operations of matter, without any transcendent pretensions of a cause disentangled from an effect. There is nothing in this production of what Thomas Aquinas called an “aspect of generation and sonship,” [97] where paternal life transmits information, a word here freighted with all its etymological weight of giving form. 

Vermin swarm from and in matter without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality separable from their temporary affiliations. Vermin then return to earth, possibly to arise again at some point if conditions are right, but possibly not. What returns has no informational line distinct from the matter that could possibly be traced from parent to child. If life in its pre-Darwinian conceptualizations is ahistorical because it transmits itself unalterably across time, spontaneous generation is ahistorical because it lacks any continuity or narrative or identifiable struggle. If this stuff is life, it must be life completely immanent to its temporary ordering of stuff, without any of the informational, transcendent, and spiritual implications that “life” carries, and without any split between its particular manifestation of life and a transcendent “life principle.”[98] If this stuff is body, it is not body as origin or ground or the prediscursive repressed matter underneath social and gender codes.[99] If information is not distinguished from material structure, if body is not distinguished from its effects, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. Individuation now need not be something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. Nor is it something that happens “on the surface” of a body. It can be understood to happen with matter itself, through its organization within a roiling field of other matter, in which a perfect description of the information particularizing a particular piece of matter would be nothing less than an exact copy of that piece of matter, and possibly of the larger constantly shifting spatiotemporal order of matter that made that particularization possible.

Blaise of Parma helps us imagine what life looks like without a soul, or, to put this another way, what the soul looks like without any principle of separation. So too, perhaps unsurprisingly, does the Disputation. Typical medieval death poetry tends to split body from soul, and sets each to arguing with the other over which should be blamed for the infernal or purgatorial plight the self has fallen into: “Nou is mon hol and soint” [Now is Man Whole and Sound] has soul blame the body for not fasting on Fridays, not giving alms on Saturday, and not attending church on Sundays; “In a þestri stude I stod” [In a Dark State I Stood] has soul begin with contemptuous “Wo worþe þi fleis, þi foule blod, wi liggest þou nou here” [woe betide your flesh, your foul blood, why do you lie here?], an anger that soul unrelentingly maintains until its final prophetic flourish, an eschatological sequence of the world’s terrifying last seven days that concludes with Christ’s return; “Als I lay in winteris nyt” [As I lay in Winter’s night], whose 624 lines give Body space to fight back against Soul’s pious sarcasm (here soul’s “þi foule blod” is met with body’s “3if þou hast schame & gret despite, / Al it is þine owhen gilt” [if you have shame and great disdain / it is entirely your own fault]).[100] The Disputation compilation has its own Body versus Soul debate, excerpted at length from the Middle English translation of from Guillaume de Deguileville’s fourteenth-century Le Pèlerinage de l’Âme [The Pilgrimage of the Soul].[101] It may be most singular for its practical concern with the science of putrefaction (noble things, Soul explains, smell worse when they rot);[102] eventually, an angelic mediator repairs the disunion of soul and body that both death and the debate had split apart. In the Disputation, however, there is no soul, nothing that could be identified as having any permanence. If the poem provides no soul, we need not furnish it with one.[103] If fifteenth-century “context” is needed to authorize my observation, the simplest explanation is that the lady had once had a soul, and that by the time the poem begins, it has already left, either to heaven, hell, or what is more expected in this period, purgatory, and that what we witness in this debate is what is left over, in the period between death and the soul’s return to a recreated body in the Last Judgment.

What remains is Body. As a named character with motives and a voice, Body has everything a literary work typically needs for a personality. With all this, and with its claims to ownership of flesh and bones, we might say that Body plays the part of soul, but immanently rather than rather than transcendently, by a voice that just marks out the place where the self can be located for a while within always an always shifting materiality that it shares, unequally, with the worms. If we locate the soul in the function it plays in other poems in this tradition, as the voice of moral and doctrinal authority, then the worms may be the poem’s soul, with this crucial, obvious distinction: they are not the self, nor, as a crowd, even a self, and as nonhuman life, they are certainly, for better or worse, not destined for eternity.

We need not imagine that Body’s voice must emanate from some spiritual immateriality, some promise of transcendence, some separation of agential self from the objectified matter it inhabits and moves.  This is all to say, despite the tendency of even modern critics to persist in using metaphors of “vitality” and “animation” to describe the character of “agency,” this poem presents a disanimated, corporeal self, aware of itself as self, of course, but without any principle of separation that would rescue the self from being an object for others. What the soullessness of the Disputation presents, then, is an almost unimaginable immanent selfhood, but one that suffers from a capacity often ignored in accounts of impersonal life, “composting,” and other ecocritical, posthumanist philosophy, namely, the capacity to die, which it gives voice to, impossibly, from the other side of death.

“Vibrancy” is a better term for this than, for example, “vitality,” for the same reasons Jane Bennett gives in the opening to Vibrant Matter, where she sets out “to theorize a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such, and to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance.”[104] This recognition of the vibrancy of matter itself, through its own operations, without any transcendence, itself suggests Slavoj Žižek’s engagement of Karen Barad’s philosophical work on quantum mechanics. While Barad argues that phenomena are the fundamental ontological element, not determinate objects, Žižek observes that even to recognize particular phenomena as phenomena requires making a cut in the field of being. Something must therefore be more fundamental than the phenomenon; there must be an as-yet-unresolved thing preexisting any determination.[105] Žižek argues that this something is pure difference, a term that might be replaced without much distortion with undifferentiated “vibrancy,” as yet unmapped into that chain of entangled and contingently arranged cause and effect that constitute a Baradian phenomenon. This fundamental mobile indeterminacy in turn suggests Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics, where the underlying, preexisting, and still persisting oneness of all things is not some “ideal form” nor “a kind of perfect totality of the cosmos” but rather an “obscurity . . . the fundamentally unstable beginning of all processes and entities of the universe,” “corrupted or degenerate instead of being transcendent” in that its existence at all “sets in motion the engine of spatiotemporality,”[106] which is itself a kind of tumbling outward into creative, ongoing collapse.

Yet to emphasize vibrancy, pure difference, or corruption at the fundamental operations of things, before the imposition or recognition of life, and to see this vibrancy as vermin, crawling chaos, or some other repulsive non-thing, is to see things from the perspective of the presumptively living. It is to see things from the side of God or of masculine order. It is to place ourselves and our counterparts on the side of life with politics and a face, as if we, at least, are echoes of God’s primordial commandment, preserving the proper paternal traditions of Creation through our well-ordered but threatened bodies, and to relegate everything else to the side of mere being. The old, self-regarding mistake of splitting bios (our life, worth preserving) from zoe (their life, hardly recognizable as life) can be avoided in ways that Žižek, Woodard, and, most easily, Bennett might each grant their peculiar endorsement.

We must recognize the following: the fundamental disorder is not a problem particular to vermin but rather one general to all that is; to call it disorder rather than, for example, “endless generativity” is to continue to think too highly of ourselves; we ourselves and our worldly counterparts are also immanent to this material vibrancy or constantly erupting disorder; we are therefore not alive so long as “being alive” means having some escape from presumptively inert, “dead,” or uncreative materiality; that the opposition of life/death, with fertility on the side of life and sterility on that of death, is insupportable;[107] our mistaken self-conception of being alive and wanting to stay alive is general to anything that seeks to persist; and vibrancy will always swarm forth from the putrefaction, exhaustion, failure, or, for that matter, the ineluctable instability of matter, to try to sustain its own new, temporary order, and it will continue to do so long past anything we can imagine is past the point of caring. This is what Body in the Disputation meets in the grave; these are what offer her friendship.

Coda: Everything is Food, or, Making Friends with Your Abyss

In a passage often lauded by ecocritics for describing a “transhuman ethic,”[108] Martin Heidegger’s 1946 “Letter on Humanism” declares that “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of being.”[109] But to be a shepherd is to be singular and heroic among a crowd, the fortunate, often witless recipients of our protection; and to be a literal shepherd means not just protecting a flock, but living off wool and, at last, mutton.[110] Heidegger’s maxim might be improved materially by emending it to read ‘Man is also the fodder of Being. Or beings,’ that is, not ‘Der Mensch ist der Hirt des Seins’ but ‘Der Mensch ist auch das Futter des Seins. Oder Seienden.’

 This lesson is what the Disputation finally aims at. Body eventually concurs with the worms’ paraphrase of Proverbs 31:30 (“Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: the woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised”) and then turns to us to insist that we “avoyde fleschly temptacone” (189); finally accepting the filth and her dissolution, she then waits the coming resurrection. Nothing could be more humanist than believing in the coming realization of an unchanging, invulnerable life, freed from all worldly entanglements or responsibilities. But then, the body addresses the worms: “lat vs be frendes at þis sodayn brayed / Neghbours and luf as before we gan do / Let vs kys and dwell to gedyr euermore” [let us be friends after this unexpected commotion; let us be neighbors and love as we did before. Let us kiss and dwell together forever; ll. 194-96]. A beautiful sentiment, one we might hear as addressed to her own microbial multiplicity, but one also ruined by the contract’s fine print: “to þat God wil þat I sal agayn vpryse / At þe day of dome before þe hye justyse, / With þe body glorified to be” [until God wills that I shall rise again, on Judgment Day, to be called before his justice with a glorified body; ll. 197-99]. Humanism reasserts itself with her expectation of being rescued from the worms, vulnerability, or any other worldly entanglement.

 Yet this reassertion of humanism works only if we ignore the “euermore,” or twist it into meaning “until things improve.” We might as well, then, ignore the poem’s promise of rescue, attending primarily or even exclusively to the poem’s bodily present, which is precisely about the body coming to realize that no rescue is coming, except, perhaps, at some almost unimaginable future point.[111] Here, in the grave as in life, the “euermore” must be understood as promising a perpetuity entirely different from the coming celestial stasis. It cannot refer to the bodies of corpse and worms themselves. The corpse’s matter will go on, while the corpse itself will soon lose its self-consistency to the worm’s mouths. The worms and other vermin, constitutively vulnerable like anything else, have no better claim to endurance; they too will feed something, and be passed on.

“Euermore” might be heard, then, as characterizing not an impossible bodily persistence but rather the activity of corpse and worms dwelling together. They are mattering together in an activity that will continue regardless of her hope for an end to it. To dwell with worms, to kiss them and be friends, means to recognize oneself as constitutively enmeshed in unending cycles of appetite. In friendship, the corpse gives herself up to what has always had her. She offers herself to what would have taken her anyway. In so doing, she accepts what we might take as the final lessons of medieval death poetry, one that operates by requiring that the male-identified viewer recognize the being he shares with this woman, her worms, in a grave that respects no worldly hierarchy. He must come to know that nothing, not his humanity, not his wealth, not his beauty, will let him “outsource” his vulnerability; and that his appetites and desires, human and otherwise, will be humbled by the appetites and desires of others. Amid these appetites, vulnerable and hungry, he should never forget the use that will be made of him, and the strange, often unpleasant communities of use that form around the use of bodies.


[1] Quoted in Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 186.

[2] From the introduction to Raoul de Houdenc, The Songe d’Enfer, ed. Madelyn Timmel Mihm (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1984), 17.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.76-77.

[4] Thomas de Quincey, Note Book of an English Opium-Eater (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 293.

[5] For a related discussion of “Post-Cartesian” “hygienic” conception of the human, and the increasing acknowledgement, since the 1980s, of “human dependence on parasites and vermin,” see Karen Raber, Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 123–24.

[6] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 32 and 64. See also Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 122.

[7] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 41.

[8] Far more thorough and dedicated discussions can be found, for example, in Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011); Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[9] For text and brief commentary, see Linne R. Mooney et al., “Digital Index of Middle English Verse,” accessed April 4, 2017,, [hereafter DIMEV], 6292, and Susanna Greer Fein, ed., The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, trans. Susanna Greer Fein, David Raybin, and Jan Ziolkowski, vol. 2, 3 vols., TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2014). This poem might be contrasted with a short poem on the same thing, but more neatly moral and anthropocentric: DIMEV 1166, in which “erth goyth vpon erth al glysteryng in gold…and yet must erth to erth soner than he wold.”

[10] Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Machester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 22.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Michael McVaugh, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974): 259–283.

[13] Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 59, 56. For a compact discussion of the political implications of Bataille and the abject, Sylvère Lotringer, The Miserables, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 46–47, “The conclusion that [Robert] Antelme drew from the scene of the potato peelings [in a Nazi camp] was that ‘there was no limit to the rise of man, but he cannot fall below a certain level.’ For Bataille, it was just the reverse.”

[14] Bataille, Erotism, 47.

[15] Maurice Bloch and Jonathan P. Parry, eds., “Death, Women, and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life (London: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 223–24.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson, 3rd ed. (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 5.1.194.

[17] Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), XVI.i, 317.

[18] Frederick James Furnivall, ed., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, vol. 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1901), 696.

[19] Joseph M. Donatelli, Death and Life (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1989), ll. 193-97.

[20] For the phrase’s vast popularity, see Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet, “Les vers comme heritiers: Aspects de la poétique du testament aux XIVe et XVe siècles,” Micrologus 7 (1999): 349 n3.

[21] Quoted in Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 400.

[22] Quoted in Gray, Medieval English Religious Lyric, 206–7.

[23] Thomas Hahn, ed., Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), l. 120.

[24] John W. Conlee, ed., Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1991), ll. 107-13. Here I acknowledge the deservedly well-known study by Diana Fuss, “Corpse Poem,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 1 (2003): 1–30, while also noting its inutility for medieval studies: poetry, which Fuss presents as a having a particular capacity to speak of the present absence of the corpse (27), is, in the Middle Ages, not yet relegated to its modern hieratic status (27); and her almost exclusively Anglophone narrative (particularly on 4) of the history of speaking corpses simply ignores the Middle Ages (see especially 4 n5).

[25] For a brief treatment of the manuscript and its likely contexts, Emily Richards, “Writing and Silence: Transitions Between the Contemplative and the Active Life,” in Pieties in Translation: Religious Practices and Experiences C. 1400-1640, ed. Richard Lutton and Elisabeth Salter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 168–70.

[26] Histories of this genre are easy to come by. One of the best is in Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), 62–63, 71–72.

[27] At this point, the poem becomes garbled, with perhaps as much as two of its 7-line rhyme royal stanzas missing between the description of the tomb and the narrator’s ravishment; Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry, 53 n22-8.

[28] Jessica Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 221–27; Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992), 203, 237; Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 29–30; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 191–92; Marlene Villalobos Hennessy, “The Remains of the Royal Dead in an English Carthusian Manuscript, London, British Library, MS Additional 37049,” Viator 33 (2002): 310–354; Marjorie M. Malvern, “An Earnest ‘Monyscyon’ and ‘Þinge Delectabyll’ Realized Verbally and Visually in‘ A Disputacion Betwyx Þe Body and Wormes,’ A Middle English Poem Inspired by Tomb Art and Northern Spirituality,” Viator 13 (1982): 415–450; Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 160–61; Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 328–30.

[29] The classic treatment is Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), eg, 15, “The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.” For a good summary of the tradition and feminist developments, Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 25–26. For the persistence of this notion, Midas Dekkers, The Way of All Flesh: A Celebration of Decay, trans. Sherry Marx-Macdonald (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 103, “Generally, it’s easier to tell a group of Chinese people apart than it is a circle of little old ladies from Florida,” here remarking on cosmetics, among many such appalling assessments, fatally marring a book so eager to be a modern version of Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall.

[30] British Museum Additional 37049, 48v. See also a similarly hirsute Mary Magdalene, ascending to heaven on 50v. For the benefit of non-medievalists: manuscripts are typically numbered by the sheet, rather than by the side of the sheet. The 48r would indicate the “recto,” the top side of the forty-eighth sheet (of paper, parchment, etc), and 48v its “verso,” the back side.

[31] For the gendered complexities of body, flesh, and spirit, Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26–34, and, at length, Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

[32] For other comments on the poem’s multi-gendered identifications, Elizabeth Robertson, “Kissing the Worm: Sex and Gender in the Afterlife and the Poetic Posthuman in the Late Middle English ‘A Disputation Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 138 (“the dreamer is ravished and raped by his vision,” a submission to rape that anticipates what Robertson argues the Body suffers from the worms); Wendy A. Matlock, “The Feminine Flesh in the Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,” in Identity and Community in Medieval Culture, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 267 (“the initial image of the woman’s figure unites the anonymous narrator with the unknown woman”).

[33] Brant Lee Doty, “An Edition of British Museum Manuscript Additional 37049” (PhD Thesis, Michigan State University, 1969), 489, 87r. I have been unable to consult the other edition of the compilation, likewise available only in an unpublished dissertation; Barbara B Streeter, “British Museum Additional MS 37049: A Mirror of the Fifteenth-Century Contemplative Mind” (PhD Thesis, Rutgers University, 1971).

[34] James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 1 (2006): 14, “If homosexuality was not a ‘recognized concept’ in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn’t either.”

[35] Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul, 62.

[36] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141–42.

[37] For a summary of fifteenth-century controversies about the Carthusian diet, Julia Fleming, “When ‘Meats Are like Medicines’: Vitoria and Lessius on the Role of Food in the Duty to Preserve Life,” Theological Studies 69, no. 1 (2008): 101–3.

[38] Doty, “Ed. BM Add 37049,” 184, 28r.

[39] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 132.

[40] Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 141.

[41] Though the “we” in the following is true, I am wary of it: Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 97, “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters–human and not–become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.” See similar statements at 32, 55, and 101-2. As much as I embrace her ontology and politics, Haraway rather has her foot on the scale in her praise for sympoietic becomings and disdain for anthropocentric refusals to involute: the former tend to be represented by queer, anticolonialist, antiracist art, while the latter is represented, for example, by Eichmann himself (“who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle,” 36).

[42] To be precise, Jessica Barker, “Stone and Bone: The Corpse, the Effigy, and the Viewer in Late-Medieval Tomb Sculpture,” in Revisiting the Monument: Fifty Years Since Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture, ed. Ann Adams and Jessica Barker (London: Courtauld Books Online, 2016), 114–16, emphasizes that the poem’s dreamer can see the tomb’s corpse only in his vision; the manuscript illustrates what resembles a transi tomb, but the poem’s narrative does not.

[43] This how Ralph Hamsterley represented himself on his sixteenth-century shroud brass; see Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol, Plate 37.

[44] For the British fashion for these monuments, and an argument against the notion that they had anything to do with the plague or heterodoxy, see Pamela M. King, “The Cadaver Tomb in England: Novel Manifestations of an Old Idea,” Church Monuments 5 (1990): 26–38; Pamela M. King, “‘My Image to Be Made All Naked’: Cadaver Tombs and the Commemoration of Women in Fifteenth-Century England,” The Ricardian 13 (2003): 294–314.

[45] Woolf, English Religious Lyric, 318–19. Mooney et al., “DIMEV.”, DIMIV 3624.

[46] For example, Erica Fudge, “The Dog, the Home, and the Human, and the Ancestry of Derrida’s Cat,” The Oxford Literary Review 29 (2007): 37–54; Laurence Simmons, “Shame, Levinas’s Dog, Derrida’s Cat (And Some Fish),” in Knowing Animals, ed. Phillip Armstrong and Laurence Simmons (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 25–42; Gerald L. Bruns, On Ceasing to Be Human (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 79–97; Susan Fraiman, “Pussy Panic versus Liking Animals: Tracking Gender in Animal Studies,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 1 (2012): 89–115; Carla Freccero, “Checher la chatte: Derrida’s Queer Feminine Animality,” in French Thinking about Animals, ed. Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 105–20.

[47] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 13.

[48] Ibid., 6.

[49] Ibid., 9.

[50] Fudge, “Derrida’s Cat.” For a survey of medieval cat thought, Douglas Gray, “Notes on Some Medieval, Mystical, Magical, and Moral Cats,” in Langland, the Mystics, and the Medieval English Religious Tradition: Essays in Honour of S.S. Hussey, ed. Helen Phillips (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1990), 185–202.

[51] For the French, compare, for example, Jacques Derrida, “L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 253, “devant un chat qui vous regarde sans bouger” [before a male cat who looks as you without moving], 255–56, “le chat qui me regarde nu . . . ce chat dont je parle, qui est aussi une chatte” [the male cat who looks at me naked, the male cat about whom I speak, who is also a female cat], and 257, “la chatte qui me regarde nu, celle-là et nulle autre, celle dont je parle ici”? [the female cat who looks at me naked, that female one there and no other, the female one about whom I am speaking here; original emphasis]. For recent good appreciations of gender and Derrida, with special attention to cats, see Freccero, “Chercher la chatte”; Jessica Polish, “After Alice after Cats in Derrida’s L’Animal que donc Je suis,” Derrida Today 7, no. 2 (2014): 180–96.

[52] Derrida, Animal that therefore, 9,

[53] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 20–21.

[54] J.W. Thomas, trans., Ortnit and Wolfdietrich: Two Medieval Romances (Columbia: Camden House, 1986), 36–38.

[55] Representative treatments include Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 113–18; David L Clark, “On Being ‘the Last Kantian in Nazi Germany’: Dwelling with Animals after Levinas,” in Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, ed. Barbara Gabriel and Suzan Illcan (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 41–74; Tobias Menely, The Animal Claim: Sensibility and the Creaturely Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 37; Max Hantel, “Bobby Between Deleuze and Levinas, or Ethics Becoming-Animal,” Angelaki 18, no. 2 (2013): 105–26, who, at 112, does observe, “relays exist in the snake or the dog that disarticulate the human faciliaty machine and open us up to new ethical possibilities”: of course, the snake throws the gears of this machine rather more severely than the dog.

[56] Emmanuel Lévinas, “The Paradox of Morality”,” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, trans. Andrew Benjamin and Tamra Wright (London; New York: Routledge, 1988), 171–72.

[57] Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson, eds., Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive and Unwanted Species (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), in a practical, unphilosophical way, begins to rectify this omission. For a similar critical move, on the problem of the “individual bee,” see Keith M. Botelho, “Honey, Wax, and Dead Bee,” Early Modern Culture 11 (2016): 102–3. For an exemplary case of a shooing attention at insects, Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 70.

[58] Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (New York: New York University Press, 2013). For representative work in early modern bees, Mary Baine Campbell, “Busy Bees: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Very Small,” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 36, no. 3 (2006): 619–42, Jonathan Woolfson, “The Renaissance of Bees,” Renaissance Studies 24, no. 2 (2010): 281–300, Joseph Campana, “The Bee and the Sovereign? Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale,” Shakespeare Studies 41 (2013): 94–113, and Botelho, “Honey, Wax, and Dead Bee.”

[59] For example, see Hilda M. Ransome, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (Mineola: Dover, 2004), 215.

[60] Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an Emperor, Edited and Translated by S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), 55.

[61] Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales; And, the Description of Wales, trans. Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1978), 169–70.

[62] For this idea, see several points in Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence Schehr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), for example, 24, “man is the universal parasite . . . plants and animals are always his hosts; man is always necessarily their guest. Always taking, never giving.”

[63] Qtd. in Rooney, Mortality and Imagination, 33.

[64] The Electronic Middle English Dictionary, based on Robert E. Lewis (gen. ed.), University of Michigan, 1953-2001. University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service, 2001. s.v., “in” (adv.) and “in” (prep.), 8a and 8b.

[65] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 36.

[66] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 112–13. For several more, Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet (Ropley: Zero, 2011), 7; Haraway, When Species Meet, 220; Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 66.

[67] Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.v.18, page needed.

[68] Basil of Caesarea, Letters and Select Works, trans. Blomfield Jackson, vol. 8, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1895), IX.2, 102.

[69] Stasinos Stavrianeas, “Spontaneous Generation in Aristotle’s Biology,” Rhizai 5, no. 2 (2008): 308; Justine E. H. Smith, “La Génération spontanée et le problème de la reproduction des espèces avant et après Descartes,” Philosophiques 34, no. 2 (2007): 277.

[70] My discussion is largely guided by Maaike van der Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge: Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire. Une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004). Several good studies on spontaneous generation and affiliated topics in Early Modern Europe are available: Mary Fissell, “Imagining Vermin in Early Modern England,” History Workshop Journal 47 (1999): 1–29; Edward J. Geisweidt, “‘The Nobleness of Life’: Spontaneous Generation and Excremental Life in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Dickson Bruckner and Daniel Brayton (Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011), 89–103; Rina Knoeff, “Animals Inside. Anatomy, Interiority and Virtue in the Early Modern Dutch Republic,” Medizinhistorisches Journal 43, no. 1 (2008): 1–19; Ian MacInnes, “The Politic Worm: Invertebrate Life in the Early Modern English Body,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, ed. Jean E. Feerick and Vincent Joseph Nardizzi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 253–73; Karen Raber, “Vermin and Parasites: Shakespeare’s Animal Architecture,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 13–32.

[71] Aristotle, Historia Animalium, trans. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, vol. 4, The Works of Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon, 1910), V.19, 550a.

[72] Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals, trans. Irven Michael Resnick and Kenneth F. Kitchell, jr. (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 110.

[73] John Trevisa, On the Properties of Things: John Trevisa’s Translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum, ed. M.C. Seymour, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), respectively Vol. 2,  18.48, 1239; 18.70, 1222; 18.47, 1198; 18.49, 1240; 18.115, 1264. Citations are to book, chapter, and page number.

[74] Basil of Caesarea, Select Works., IX.2, 102.

[75] Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 269.

[76] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), XV.27, 518–19. Genesis includes two distinct accounts of God’s command to fill the ark; 7:2, unlike 6:19, omits the command to gather “omni reptili” (all creeping things).

[77] See, for example, Eléonore Fournié, L’iconographie de la Bible historiale (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), and, more generally, Johannes Zahlten, Creatio mundi: Darstellungen der sechs Schöpfungstage und naturwissenschaftliches Weltbild im Mittelalter (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1979).  I thank Aden Kumler and Ittai Weinryb for their expert art historical assistance.

[78] Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge, 137.

[79] Helen Rodnite Lemay, trans., Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 98.

[80] Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle’s On Animals, 528–29.

[81] Augustine, “On the Holy Trinity,” in On the Holy Trinity. Doctrinal Treatises. Moral Treatises, trans. Arthur West Haddan and W.G.T. Shedd, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1887), III.8.13, 60.

[82] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers 41, 42 (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 90.

[83] See especially Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993), and, earlier, John Farley, The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); Nils Roll-Hansen, “The Death of Spontaneous Generation and the Birth of the Gene: Two Case Studies of Relativism,” Social Studies of Science 13 (1983): 481–519.

[84] Quoted in John Farley and Gerald L. Gieson, “Science, Politics and Spontaneous Generation in Nineteenth-Century France: The Pasteur-Pouchet Debate,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 48 (1974): 197.

[85] Pasteur’s speech, delivered on April 7, 1864, was reprinted in “Des Générations spontanées,” Revue des cours scientifiques 1, no. 21 (April 23, 1864): 257–64. trans. Alex Levine,, modified slightly by me.

[86] Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: The First Part; Wherein, All the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism Is Confuted; and Its Impossibility Demonstrated (London: Richard Royston, 1678), 148.

[87] Edward G. Ruestow, “Leeuwenhoek and the Campaign against Spontaneous Generation,” Journal of the History of Biology 17, no. 2 (1984): 225–48. Henry Harris, Things Come to Life: Spontaneous Generation Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 22, quotes Leeuwenhoek, arguing that everything, “however small it may be,” depends upon the first Creation.

[88] Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2011), 262.

[89] See, for example, the embarrassment in Harris, Things Come to Life, 22 and 25, over Francesco Redi’s and Antonio Vallisnieri’s Roman Catholicism.

[90] Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 7.

[91] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, trans. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 169–70.

[92] Juli Pereto, Jeffrey L. Bada, and Antonio Lazcano, “Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life,” Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 39 (2009): 395–406.

[93] The following account is indebted to Antonio Lazcano, “What Is Life? A Brief Historical Overview,” Chemistry & Biodiversity 5, no. 1 (2008): 1–15; David Penny, “An Interpretive Review of the Origin of Life Research,” Biology and Philosophy 20, no. 4 (2005): 633–71; F. Raulin-Cerceau, “Historical Review of the Origin of Life and Astrobiology,” in Origins: Genesis, Evolution and Diversity of Life, ed. Joseph Seckbach (Springer Netherlands, 2005), 15–33; Joachim Schummer, “The Creation of Life in Cultural Context: From Spontaneous Generation to Synthetic Biology,” in The Ethics of Protocells Moral and Social Implications of Creating Life in the Laboratory, ed. Mark Bedau and Emily C. Parke (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 125–42.

[94] Eckhard Kessler, “The Intellective Soul,” in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philososphy, ed. Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 487. For further consideration of Blaise, whose works remain largely unavailable in modern editions, see Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge, 176–81.

[95] For later thinking with some resemblance to this, see Smith, “Génération Spontanée,” 282–83, who observes that Martin Luther noted that Adam had been created from mud, but that with the creation of Eve, future generations of humans would reproduce sexually, like other animals.

[96] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 22–23.

[97] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 3 vols. (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), Ia.27.2.

[98] For a monumental critique of the distinction between life itself and the living, see Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[99] The anti-Lacanian, anti-representational engagement with Deleuze by Abigail Bray and Claire Colebrook, “The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Embodiment,” Signs 24, no. 1 (1998): 35–67 is a key reference here in its wholesale assault on “the persistence of the notion of the body as a privileged anteriority” (44; also see 56).

[100] All three poems are edited in Conlee, Middle English Debate Poetry.

[101] Brantley, Reading in the Wilderness, 323, for the work, editions, and studies.

[102] Ibid., 461.

[103] Compare Robertson, “Kissing the Worm,” 126, “the corpse that speaks is animated by a soul, of course, because it is a soul that allows it to speak.” Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 274, “The soul never appears,” which leads Matlock to conclude that the soul is present indistinguishably with Body. Also see Katherine H. Terrell, “Rethinking the ‘Corse in Clot’: Cleanness, Filth, and Bodily Decay in ‘Pearl,’” Studies in Philology 105, no. 4 (2008): 437 n14, “the soul appears to remain with the body [in the Disputation], awaiting a judgment.” For further context, Phillipa C. Maddern, “Murdering Souls and Killing Bodies: Understanding Spiritual and Physical Sin in Late-Medieval English Devotional Works,” in Conjunctions of Mind, Soul, and Body from Plato to the Enlightenment, ed. Danijela Kambaskovic (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2014), 25–45, which tracks how bodies and souls sometimes “swap essential characteristics” in late medieval writing.

[104] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, xiii.

[105] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso, 2012), 938.

[106] Ben Woodard, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 59.

[107] For one version of this point, see MacInnes, “The Politic Worm: Invertebrate Life in the Early Modern English Body,” 259.

[108] Frank Schalow, The Incarnality of Being: The Earth, Animals, and the Body in Heidegger’s Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 112.

[109] Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” ed. William McNeill, trans. Frank A. Capuzzi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 260. He also makes this claim on 252.

[110] For allied critiques of this passage, see Tom Tyler, “Like Water in Water,” Journal for Cultural Research 9, no. 3 (2005): 273; Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 58; Wolfe, Before the Law, 40.

[111] See also Matlock, “Feminine Flesh,” 264, “the poem ends inconclusively without an account of the body’s fate after resurrection.”; Wendy A. Matlock, “Vernacular Theology in the ‘Disputacione Betwyx the Body and Wormes,’” in Translatio: Or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura Holden Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), 123–27, on the poem’s irresolution on the question of whether the body will be saved or not.


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