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How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages by Karl Steel (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 125-126 | 10.1353/art.2013.0045

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Karl Steel’s deeply engaging, exhaustively researched, and theoretically savvy How To Make a Human takes as its central focus the methods employed to distinguish between medieval humans and medieval animals. Arguing that ‘the human’ is a structural position rather than an essential quality, Steel maintains that the medieval human founded its claims to physical, moral, and spiritual uniqueness on the domination of the animal and particularly on violence toward the animal body.

In the best of critical veins, and in one central to the field of critical animal studies (or critical animal theory), which ‘can be characterized by its ethical concerns and renewal of posthumanist philosophy’ (3), Steel’s goals stretch beyond his analysis of medieval culture to critique a ‘persistent anthropocentrism’ in modern defenses of animals (3). Steel explicitly invokes a modern ethical agenda, suggesting that, ‘Recognizing themselves anew, humans need not imagine themselves as singularly human, with all that implies, at the expense of what they understand as merely animal’ (5). One of the remarkable features of the volume is its ability to support this ethical agenda without sacrificing scholarly rigor to anachronistic retrojection; Steel is not merely slathering modern views onto medieval animals.

As an introduction to his topic, Steel does no less than provide a theoretical manifesto for critical animal studies, lucidly and incisively integrating the theoretical work of Derrida (to whom he acknowledges a deep debt), Lacan, Heidegger, Lévinas, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Žižek, among others. Next, he argues that the domination of animals is central to the ‘dynamic and inessential structure of the human’ (24). According particularly to his study of the Sidrak and Bokkus, a fifteenth-century English verse encyclopedia, Steel establishes the medieval Christian hierarchy of the rational human and the irrational animal and illustrates that ‘the human requires a continual reenactment of subjugation [of the animal] to attempt a stabilization [of its own identity] it can never attain’ (44). He concludes the chapter by illustrating that arguments for human rationality based on the erect body of the human that can contemplate the stars and the quadrupedal body of the animal that can only contemplate its food are arbitrary and just another form of domination through classification.

In the second chapter, Steel focuses particularly on how penitential manuals regarded carrion to argue that the medieval system for handling the dead flesh of animals illustrates the necessity of the human mastery of violence, at once legitimizing human acts of violence and delegitimizing animal ones. Animals killing other animals usurp the structural position of the human and thus challenge its distinctiveness, and the penalties for eating carrion are thus concerned with righting that imbalance. Maintaining this focus on human flesh versus animal flesh in the third chapter, Steel illustrates that resurrection doctrine, which excluded animals from the afterlife, reveals an anxiety over the cross-contamination of human and animal bodies. If the body is reconstituted on Judgment Day, does the animal meat it ingested come with it, and potentially smuggle an animal body to Heaven? The same anxiety applies in reverse to anthropophagic animals. As Steel illustrates, this nervousness emphasizes both a belief and a doubt in the uniqueness of the human body.

The fourth chapter then looks at monsters and ascetics in ‘marginal cases’ to argue that while the process of domination is integral to maintaining the human, some texts caution against routine violence or cruelty to animals, not out of concern for the animals, but out of fear that this violence might be brought to bear on humans and to ‘conceal the contingency of [the human’s] claims to selfhood’ (26). The fifth chapter expands on this concern, focusing on pigs and butchers. The innate violence of the human/animal hierarchy bubbles at the surface where pigs are concerned because these animals were kept solely to be killed and eaten and yet could readily go feral and injure or kill humans. Similarly, while butchery provides the clearest proof of human domination of animals, the act of dismembering bodies also makes too readily apparent the physical similarity between humans and animals. ‘No profession,’ Steel states, ‘shows more clearly that the human is an effect, not a cause, of animal...

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