As the era preceding the articulation of what has come to be known as humanism, the European Middle Ages offer a variety of vantage points from which to trouble present certainties, complicate contemporary narratives of what the human means, and set new trajectories for the future of posthumanist thought. The medieval period does not prefigure posthumanism as much as it reveals, according to the editors of the inaugural issue of the journal postmedieval, the many “ways in which bodies (human and non-human) and the world have always been emerging together out of various dynamic material processes and fields of interpretation”.[1] In other words, as Karl Steel reminds us, “Posthumanism does not follow humanism, but is rather inherent to its own claims”, and the fittest place to locate posthumanism within a culture is at the margins produced by its attempts to define the human.[2] As medieval people often saw themselves as more enmeshed in an agentive material world than humans do today – not a fantasy of ecological dwelling as much as a frequent grappling with ontotheological questions regarding biblical creation and eschatological narratives – their attempts to articulate the boundaries of the human within a vibrant earth engendered a wealth of orientations we might consider to be posthuman.

From the Cosmographia (1544), a catalogue of peoples of the earth

Monsters, for instance, obsessed the medieval mind, and tales of heroes and travellers across the entire medieval period are teeming with the giant, hybrid, bestial creatures that as frequently haunted the margins of manuscripts in the shape of frightening – or playful – illuminations as they opposed the protagonists within the actual texts.[3] Humans attempted to define themselves against monsters, but thereby also found themselves entangled with these complicated Others. In Beowulf, Grendel and his beastly mother threatened Heorot, the shining light of mead-halls, from a subterranean swamp, and yet the hero’s plunge into the monsters’ den revealed another fire-lit hall and evidence that the giant creatures possessed their own written history. The popular legends of Alexander the Great emphasised the Greek king’s encounters with hybrid creatures and oversized beasts in non-European lands, and yet it was from these very monsters that Alexander learned his own limitations. Dog-headed creatures, Amazon warrior-women, headless beings with mouths in their chest, such creatures populate travel and conquest narratives. Yet early medieval philosophers and church scholars generally followed Augustine in confirming the ‘human’ status of these monstrous creatures in order to emphasise the possibility that these marginalised Others could be redeemed or saved, brought within the cultural centre though instruction and appropriative acts of normalisation and conversion.[4] Medieval monsters often demonstrate (from the Latin monstrare) that those made to suffer most by definitions of the human are other humans.

Postcolonial studies intersects with posthumanism in some scholars’ attempts to understand the stories of conquest and crusading so popular in the romances of the High Middle Ages (11th through 13th centuries). Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has illustrated the many ways that giants were mobilised in the construction of national identities, both as imaginary indigenous inhabitants of spaces like the British archipelago against which the colonising force of the Trojans (imagined by writers such as the twelfth-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth to be the precursors to the British) could establish their right to the land by displacing its aboriginal monsters, and as the opponents whose severed heads emblematised a knight like King Arthur’s maturation into a fully constructed masculine identity and thereby confirmed his fitness as a national hero.[5] Of course, the medieval knight was inseparable from his horse, and the chevalier proved a human/non-human assemblage that troubled ontological distinctions between horse and man and rendered the boundary of the human body permeable.[6] The intersecting discourses of hyper-masculinity, class privilege, and martial prowess informing the construction of the chevalier, however, underscore the need to identify the ethical risks that inhere in contemporary Western desires for the re-integration of the human with non-human animals.[7]

The animal remains the site of much posthumanist work by medievalists like Karl Steel and Peggy McCracken, both of whom interrogate the way animals were mobilised in the construction of the human throughout the Middle Ages. Steel, expanding upon the critical animal studies scholarship of theorists like Cary Wolfe, illustrates the many violent acts against animals such as domestication and butchery that proved and continue to prove necessary for the production of the category human.[8] Most recently, McCracken examines the way that human-animal relations functioned as models for political sovereignty, but importantly discovers that care for the non-human world and the need for a constant discursive reiteration of human exceptionalism both worked together to trouble the very idea that the human was exceptional.[9] And the Wild Man of the Woods often mediated or transgressed the boundaries between human/non-human, such as the characters Merlin and Sir Orfeo who both enter the forest after suffering great personal loss and develop intimate relationships with non-human companions even as they both struggle to eke out a bestial existence in the wilderness.[10]

Moreover, Stacy Alaimo’s posthumanist figuration of ‘transcorporeality,’ or the “recognition that one’s bodily substance is vitally connected to the broader environment”, was already extant in the Middle Ages in the shape of climactic and humoural theories; the elements, broadly ‘earth, air, wind, and fire’, penetrated and imbued the human form with powers, affects, illnesses, and affinities.[11] Although often informed by notions of ethnic superiority, theories of the influence of geology and climate also emphasised human entanglement in the more-than-human world, thereby complicating the notion of a human exceptionalism.[12] Such awareness of non-human agencies allowed medieval writers to imagine that certain marginalised people were transformed by their local habitations, such as the Sibyl of Cumae, a famous prophetess whose body was black and craggy like the miasmic cave-entrance to the underworld she guards in the popular French and German adaptations of Virgil’s Aeneid.[13] The same telluric agencies that lend the Sibyl her more-than-human qualities also poison her body such that the prophetic Sibyl cautions against any uncritical celebration of spirited materiality or animist ontology.

Ecocritical approaches to the Middle Ages reveal other important critiques of posthumanism as well. As Kellie Robertson has recently demonstrated, the anthropomorphising and metaphorisation of Nature and the non-human allowed medieval people to imagine a world of ecological enmeshments in which definitions of the human were troubled by the very fact that Natura, a hammer-wielding shaper or craftswoman of life, speaks.[14] However much the scala natura, or ladder of Nature, might be thought to confirm ontological species’ distinctions, the influence of Aristotelian theories of immanence in the Late Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) allowed for a certain messiness or mobility within the Christian framework. By lending human qualities to the non-human world, medieval people perceived animals, plants, and even stones as agents worthy of ethical consideration. As writers like Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries allegorised the figure of Nature in order to work through questions of human behaviour, the non-human world often inspired the ethical questions at the heart of the great literary works of the Middle Ages. Medieval posthumanism recognises the value of allegory and anthropomorphic representation as tools that destabilise the very notion of human superiority over and above a world of non-human beings.

— The George Washington University, June 2017


[1] Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne, “Before the trains of thought have been laid down so firmly: The premodern post/human,” postmedieval 1.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010): 5.

[2] Karl Steel, “Medieval” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, eds. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 3.

[3] See Asa Simon Mittman, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (New York: Routledge, 2006), and Asa Simon Mittman and Susan Kim, Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

[4] John Block Friedman summarises this scholarship in The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

[5] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[6] Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

[7] See, for instance, David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

[8] Karl Steel, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011). See also: Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[9] Peggy McCracken, In the Skin of a Beast: Sovereignty and Animality in Medieval France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[10] See Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Vita Merlini, or The Life of Merlin, and the anonymous Middle English poem Sir Orfeo.

[11] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 63.

[12] An awareness of matter’s agency informed medieval understanding of the influence of even inanimate objects upon humans. See: J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[13] See the anonymous Old French Roman d’Eneas, and Heinrich von Veldeke’s Middle High German Eneit.

[14] Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).