Report on January meeting

A great variety of topics presented this month!

Given that the term ‘human’ is used from the fifteenth century onwards, can it be applied retrospectively to earlier time periods? Can we actually say that there are ‘humans’ in the early medieval period? And what type of bodies do Adam and Eve have? Francesca Allfrey stressed the physicality of Eve’s body (as well as her curious connection to the fatal apple, noting that the Anglo-Saxon Genesis poem describes Eve as both holding an apple and having an apple at her heart – a strange image in which Eve’s body and the apple almost become interchangeable). Dr Clare Lees emphasised the uncertain physical makeup of Adam, whose body is not just made from flesh and blood but also a pound of earth and andweorc, an Old English word meaning ‘substance’ or ‘stuff’. Andweorc also refers to the material that comprises heaven and earth, the raw material used in building-work and the initial beginnings or ‘raw material’ of the thought process. Dr James Paz raised the possibility that the multiple uses of andweorc are trying to suggest a state before the use of language, a state in which we did not need to connect or perceive things through language but instead had direct access to them – a state without the strict divide imposed by language and so a state without strict division between materials or between different types of bodies (whether they are ‘human’, heavenly, or even possibly immaterial).

Dr Paz’s analysis of Anglo-Saxon riddles revealed the co-dependency of humans and nonhumans on each other, but also how the fragile balance of power can easily be tipped. People may make mead, but mead can definitely have the upper hand! Rebecca Hardie suggested that it is signs of the wasteful and the useless, in relation to both human physicality and human personality, that is typically cast as nonhuman in early medieval homilies. Whilst human waste is a sign of humanity’s corrupt state (the nonhuman element of humanity unavoidably connected to the body), Hardie argues that such waste is aligned with corrupt human desires – useless desires that drive one away from God. From this perspective, anything which turns a person away from God threatens to drive them closer to the nonhuman than the human.

Carl Kears discussed beserkers, warriors described in Old Norse literature as entering a trace-like state in which they were impervious to pain and attacked their enemies with animalistic violence. However, their lack of control sometimes meant that they not only attacked their enemies but their own community, resulting in the beserker’s exile. In this case, extreme rage and loss of control over one’s emotions results in one occupying an uncertain status – a human that acts like an animal, a person cast out of society and so undefined by community bonds. Victoria Walker cited two instances in the Old English text Orosius in which the supposed human/nonhuman divide is questioned: Cyrus’s head cut off and stored in a leather bag, dehumanised and robbed of speech; in contrast, the desolate town Babylon is personified, capable of speech and comments on manmade edifices – a bizarre case of town discussing its buildings.

Janel Fontaine analysed how the status of slaves depended very much on the current ruler. However, the status of a slave appears to be necessarily complex, neither fully human nor nonhuman, treated as property yet – under the rule of King Alfred (c.871-899) – able to sell goods (and so eke out a living) on certain feast days and protected against rape. At the same time, the equation of slave with property was maintained. For instance, a slave guilty of theft was stoned to death by other slaves – slaves who were then given away as compensation for the original theft. Possession of a human status is obviously changeable and not so much self-determined as imposed by society. Hana Videen meanwhile considered the effect of Judgement Day, in which humans enter an alternate state (and therefore diverge from regular humanity) and nature assumes an alternate agency – namely, the trees start to bleed.

These presentations undermine the human/nonhuman divide (and so question the validity of these supposed binary terms) and suggest that humanness (or perhaps personhood?) is determined in various ways. There is a spatial aspect – Adam and Eve, once cast out of the garden of Eden, change from pre-human to human, in their corruption and mortality. There is a temporal aspect – Judgement Day changes humanity’s state (from human to post-human?). Control also determines one’s humanness. Losing control over one’s desires (desires which turn one away from God) or one’s emotions (e.g. beserkers unable to handle their rage) weaken your claim to humanness. It is not only self-control which affects your humanity – the community at large exerts a power over one’s human status (the existence of slaves in the early medieval period attests to this). The relationship between one’s humanity and these shifts in time, space and power deserve further exploration.

More info on these presenters can be found on the King’s College London website. Hana Videen also has a blog at http://beoshewulf.wordpress.com/, as does Francesca Allfrey at http://almostanglosaxonist.wordpress.com/

The next Being Non/Human meeting takes place on Monday 3rd February, with papers from Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Dr Chris Pak (see the Schedule and Abstracts page for more details).

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About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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