Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Eleonora Stoppino, "Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages" Response by Ryan Stock

Monday, November 16, 2015

posted under by Roman Friedman

[On November 2, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the first installment in its 2015-2016 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages." The speaker was Eleonora Stopiino, Associate Professor of Italian and Medieval Studies. Opening remarks were given by Martin Camargo (Associate Dean for Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs), with an introduction by Charles D. Wright (English/Medieval Studies), and a response by Craig Williams (Classics). Below are reflections on this event from graduate student Ryan Stock.]

Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages
Written by Ryan Stock (Geography and Geographic Information Sciences)

Throughout her lecture, “Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages,” Professor of Medieval Studies and Italian, Eleonora Stoppino, enjoined us to critically engage the human-animal dichotomy by considering the following questions: 1) How did people think about animals in the Middle Ages? 2) What is “necessary” about the animals represented in medieval texts? Her use of the term “necessary” was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, who famously declared that dragons are necessary monsters, much like the unknowable universe, because they play on the human imagination. Stoppino asserted that our shared humanity has emerged in the process of differentiating ourselves from the animal kingdom. For Stoppino, the Middle Ages are particularly useful to understanding the historical process of the making of humans because the Cartesian dualism between human and animal took form during that time. Citing representations of the Black Plague as an exemplary case study for understanding the production of the human-animal distinction during the Middle Ages, Stoppino focused her discussion on the ideas of contagion and contamination in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and a few other medieval texts. She argued that contagion is such a crucial phenomenon because it catalyzes efforts to imagine our “humanness” as we confront birth and death. Thus, medieval texts such as the Decameron, that are emblematic of the era, provide a window through which we can witness how we finally “became human.”

Published soon after the Black Death epidemic of 1348, Boccaccio’s Decameron is a rich source for its protoscientific understanding of anthropozootic contagion. Boccaccio’s text provides valuable historical information about responses to the plague including prophylactic measures used by the authorities to combat the disease. But the text also diverges in crucial ways from other contemporary accounts of the disease, most notably in omitting references to mirabilia and in its observations about methods of transmission of the disease. Whereas his contemporaries drew on theories of miasma and putrefaction in explaining the causes of the plague, Boccaccio’s account anticipates lines of inquiry developed in the work of Girolamo Fracastoro, one of the early and little-known proponents of germ theory, whose groundbreaking De contagione et contagiosis morbis appeared nearly two centuries later. In the Decameron, Boccaccio correctly infers that transmission was related to touch. He depicts pigs playing in the clothing of infected humans that then became infected with the plague. Even though germ theory was not widely accepted, Boccaccio seems to understand that tiny invisible particles carried the plague from the clothing to the pigs. Stoppino argued that Boccaccio’s novel representation of contagion illuminates one of the key moments in the demarcation of the boundary between the human and the nonhuman.

Stoppino explained that animality occupies center-stage in the Decameron and is associated with contagion in its physical and moral aspects. In various tales animals serve as the agents of contamination. Even in the parable of two young lovers, Pasquino and Simona, who die suddenly and mysteriously after they rub sage leaves on their teeth, what appears to be a tale of poison is revealed at the end to be a story of contagion. When the authorities order the sage bush to be burned, they discover hidden beneath it a toad, the unseen animal vector of contamination. The Decameron also brings out the role reversals produced by the plague as people become like beasts, while animals assume human-like attributes. Boccaccio describes in detail the de-humanizing effects of the plague on the population. At the same time, he shows how animals assume human-like aspects in response to the devastation of the plague. Finally, Stoppino discussed how for Boccaccio, contagion was also a moral phenomenon, citing the literal and figurative uses of the animal bite to depict how physical and moral contagion is spread. Bringing together all these examples, Stoppino proposed that the “animal risk” in the Decameron was the loss of the distinction between the human and the nonhuman.

Beyond the written word, Stoppino referenced other art works that provide great insight into human/non-human animal relationships in the Middle Ages. Palermo, Sicily, boasts the magnificent “Trionfo della Morte” (Triumph of Death) mural that artfully depicts human mortality. Beside the skeletons that bring death in a scorched earth landscape, there are numerous animals represented in this painting as purveyors of death. The two species that Stoppino highlighted were the toad and the horse.

Stoppino then expanded her discussion of human-animal relations beyond medieval artists. According to her, there are “two souls” within the field of Animal Studies: the hermeneutical path and the activist path. Despite leading us down the former, it seemed as if Stoppino was tempting us to wander away down the latter, enjoining us to analyze the power and politics behind the discourses of human/non-human disease transmission. This seems even more relevant in the wake of global epidemics today (i.e. swine flu, avian flu, Ebola). Boccaccio’s ideas link up in important ways to the work of contemporary theorists. In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida refutes the Cartesian dichotomy between human and animal. Similarly, Donna Haraway celebrates the “messmates” of bacteria that cohabit within our bodies in When Species Meet.  Giorgio Agamben takes up this issue in The Open: Man and Animal and calls on us to establish a non-hierarchical ontology of biopolitics. Animal Studies is indebted to these modern thinkers, though it would be remiss to neglect the conceptualization of human-nonhuman relations in the work of Boccaccio.

Professor Craig Williams (Classics) offered the response to Stoppino’s lecture. Reflecting upon Iroquois and Hopi texts, Craig Williams encouraged us to bridge the Cartesian human-animal divide. He called on the audience to consider how these texts focus on our inter-relatedness and welcome a dialectic between the human and the nonhuman. The fascinating subject matter elicited a flurry of questions, such as, “To what degree is contagion a helpful metaphor for other types of transmissions such as literary transmissions of moralistic fables with animals that have spread across cultures?”  Another audience member asked, “What about other fantastic or imagined creatures, i.e. the dragon?” These questions came from a range of disciplinary perspectives reflecting the importance of the issues raised by the lecture.


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