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  • Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child by John A. Mitchell
  • Nicholas Parmley
John A. Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Becoming Human offers a fascinating approach to how medieval thinkers understood and contemplated the concept of the child. It is a study, however, that goes beyond the simple matter of childhood; rather, childhood and the matter of the medieval child become the starting point for a well-researched and deftly articulated discussion of ontology and ontogeny, the problem of being and becoming. In this series of essays, Mitchell investigates the various ways in which subjects and objects are linked, suggesting that human identity can be understood through various assemblages of the textual, visual and artefactual. As such, his discussion of morphogenesis through stories of hominization without homogenization, necessarily engages various disciplines, from embryology to object theory to quantum physics. While on the surface these might seem disparate disciplines, Mitchell's careful examination of the evidence (texts, animals' lives, artifacts, cultural practices) is skillfully structured and organized, allowing the reader to easily follow the reasoning and flow of his argumentation.

Focused on the 12th to 15th centuries, with particular attention to medieval England, the book returns the reader to a time of healthy debate about embodiment, emergency, and ecology through discourses of the ovum by and amongst cosmologists, philosophers and medical practitioners, in an attempt to "rediscover the ontogenetic possibilities before they become bounded" (xvi). Recognizing our place firmly in the Anthropocene Epoch, Mitchell reminds us that anthropocentrism was not also always an inevitable mode of understanding; nor should it be now. Thus, departing from traditional humanist scholarship of the Middle Ages, he argues that humanity is a plurality of organisms and objects, a conviviality of the animate and inanimate. Following Meillassoux, he warns that the most extreme human fallacy of modern thought is to have removed the earth from the center, only to place the human in its place. And since "we are subject to the past that we not only inherit but also still inhabit," Mitchell's intention is to present speculative alternatives to the supposed pre-critical and pre-scientific medieval past (xxv). "The idea that medieval sciences are all monsters and myth," for example, "is refuted by a casual glance at the mathematical rigor of Ptolemaic astronomy and meteorology, or the sophisticated trigonometry of the astrolabe" (xxiv). Questioning the remoteness and irrelevance of the medieval past concerning these supposedly ultramodern matters is perhaps the book's greatest achievement. "This book stands to upset any complacent acceptance of our times," for the Middle Ages, he argues, anticipated "everything from commodity fetishism to terrorism" (xvi). And borrowing [End Page 374] from Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith's work in The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages, he suggests in fact that, perhaps, we have always been medieval.

The book is divided into three essays: Being Born, Childish Things, and The Mess, followed by a brief 2-page epilogue. In the first essay, Mitchell argues that the concept of ontogeny (becoming), as opposed to ontology (being), is a more useful category for understanding the multiplicity of existence. While the question of where "life" begins is always in the background, Mitchell makes clear that he is not interested in modern bio-politics or bio-ethics (i.e., the morality of abortion); rather he is concerned with an "emergent creatureliness," and how ideas of becoming point to a humanity at risk. He takes as a starting point that "there is something irrational and improper in place of the developing matter of the child" (2). Moreover, "claims for inceptive intelligence or soul (a putative innate ontology) only restate the problem (a dynamic ontogeny) they are supposed to solve" (2). The second essay attempts to fill a critical lacuna. Beginning with the ethical considerations of a tin-metal miniature toy horse, Mitchell argues how medieval childhood, and children's play in general, can be evidence for the priority of ontogeny over static ontology, in order to discuss "an-economic modes of humanizing or post-humanizing" (xxvii). Aware of the pitfalls of "flattening ethics" such that plastics receive the same...


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pp. 374-376
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