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Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002) 29-43

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Unnatural History:
Gender and Genealogy in Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica

James D. Cain
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Right in the middle of his argument in "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," Michel Foucault makes the astonishing proposition that language has the power to alter the fundamental conditions of Nature. Inasmuch as cultural discourses—and moral injunctions in particular—are geared toward regulating the performance of bodily acts, the physical strains involved in practicing or repressing certain behaviors produce physiological changes within individual bodies. These anatomical mutations are then passed down to subsequent generations as inherited traits until an entire lineage or even a whole race has taken on the same set of induced characteristics. In Foucault's original conception of genealogical descent, therefore, ideas are not just transmitted culturally and institutionally, they actually imbed themselves within bloodlines. "Finally," he writes, "descent attaches itself to the body. It inscribes itself in the nervous system, in temperament, in the digestive apparatus; it appears in faulty respiration, in improper diets, in the debilitated and prostrate body of those whose ancestors committed errors. Fathers have only to mistake effects for causes, believe in the reality of an 'afterlife,' or maintain the value of eternal truths, and the bodies of their children will suffer." 1 For Foucault, as for Nietzsche before him, cultural discourses are responsible for inhibiting organic development and stunting human growth, but to take Foucault literally at his word, variations between different belief systems can be used to explain why one segment of a population or race of people diverges from another with respect to their physical attributes. 2 By compartmentalizing humanity into different social and ethnic groups along genealogical lines, Foucault seeks to trace the development of various moral values and belief systems as they come to be expressed in different racial embodiments. This racialized concept of genealogy succeeds in undermining the notion of Nature as a unified and universal whole, for if human culture has the ability to effect real, material transformations within the domain of [End Page 29] Nature, then different cultures are capable of producing substantively different human natures.

The Transmutation of Platonic Nature

What is particularly remarkable about this argument is the way it relates to similar precepts in twelfth-century Neo-Platonic philosophy, such as Gerald of Wales was drawing upon in the Topographia Hibernica to account for the specific racial differences he encountered among his Irish contemporaries. For Gerald and his more educated associates at the court of Henry II of England, the most authoritative doctrine in the field of natural philosophy was still to be found in Plato's Timaeus, by way of Calcidius' fourth-century Latin translation. It had been the subject of extensive commentaries by such renowned schoolmasters as Bernard of Chartres and William of Conches earlier in the century, and it had informed the political theories of many of Gerald's own contemporaries, including writers like John of Salisbury and Alan of Lille. 3 In the Timaeus, Plato had maintained that the moral activity of the soul—its susceptibility to passionate disturbances arising out of its own responses to external sensory stimulation and the kinds of activities it undertook as a result—had the power to mutate human bodies accordingly. Through the process of metempsychosis, the sort of character one came to develop in one's present lifetime would be seen reflected in the body one assumed at the time of one's next incarnation. Plato states his case directly in the following excerpt from sections 42b-e:

And he who should live well for his due span of time should journey back to the habitation of his consort star and there live a happy and congenial life; but failing of this, he should shift at his second birth into a woman; and if in this condition, he still did not cease from wickedness, then according to the character of his depravation, he should constantly be changed into some beast of a nature resembling the formation of that character, and should...