Being Human in the Early Middle Ages

In the middle of the ninth century a Frankish monk named Ratramnus was given an interesting problem. Ratramnus was a member of the monastic community of Corbie, in what is now northern France, but the conundrum that he was presented with demanded that he direct his attention north, beyond the relative safety of Carolingian kings and the authority of Christian bishops, to the mostly pagan lands of Scandinavia. According to Ratramnus (and there may be some space for scepticism here, but we’ll indulge him on this point), this puzzle came to him as a letter from his friend Rimbert, future Bishop of Hamburg-Bremen, then a missionary in Scandinavia. Rimbert wrote that his contacts in the region had informed him of the presence of cynocephali, creatures with the bodies of humans and the heads of dogs, who apparently lived close by. This troubled him, for he was not sure whether these dog-heads were human or not, so he wrote to Ratramnus for advice. The decision was important, for if they were mere beasts Rimbert could leave them to it, but if they were fellow humans then it was Rimbert’s duty to try to save their souls for Christ. This was the challenge that Ratramnus had to solve.

Today, as crude moderns, we determine species by blood and sex, organising life by DNA sequence and capacity to produce fertile offspring. Linnaeus and Darwin ensured that we were obsessed by genealogy long before Foucault arrived on the scene. As DNA sequencers are only brought to the very best of parties, we approximate this by appearance, determining if someone is human by whether they look human. The definition of what it means to look human is of course often sadly narrow, and prone to unexpectedly and sharply tightening, with tragic results.

In his City of God, Augustine of Hippo (d.430) offered his readers an alternative approach. In Book 16, chapter 8, he argued that:

whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast.

For Augustine, the crucial features of a human were that they were mortal (and therefore not an angel) and possessed of reason. Appearance didn’t come into it. It is striking that the Bishop of Hippo was also thinking of cynocephali when he wrote this. The dog-heads were a perfect problem to inspire such philosophising.

Ratramnus was inclined to follow the good bishop’s lead, but this raised further difficulties. As the users of modern dating apps can attest, it is very difficult to determine if someone is rational just by looking at them. He was having to play a sort of medieval version of a Turing test. His primary solution was to adopt an anthropological approach, insofar as that was possible from hundreds of miles away with no personal experience of the people being discussed, while being entirely dependent on someone else’s account. Ratramnus’ analysed Rimbert’s description of the cynocephali, looking for behaviour that suggested to him rational planning and organisation.

A number of features of cynocephali life caught Ratramnus’ attention. He wrote to Rimbert:

They follow some laws of society, to which their dwelling in villages bears witness. They cultivate fields, which [can be] inferred from their harvesting of crops. They do not reveal their private parts as animals do, but cover them with modesty in the way humans do, which is an indication of their sense of decency. As you wrote, they possess not only hides for use as coverings, but even clothes. All these things seem to bear witness in a way that there is a rational soul in [these dog-headed ones].

[translated by Dutton.]

The cynocephali hard at work, in this fifteenth-century illustration of the travels of Marco Polo: Paris Bibl. Nat. fr.2810, fol.76v

It’s worth going through Ratramnus’ thinking with some of these characteristics. For example, he argues that in order to live together in villages, the cynocephali had to have a shared set of laws. Such a legal system would imply a communal identity, making them a city (by which Ratramnus meant a political and social community rather than an urban centre) rather than a mere agglomeration of beasts, like a pack of dogs or badgers living in setts.. The existence of law also points to the existence of a moral code on which the law would be based. Laws, a civic community and morality were all evidence of reason. On the basis of observations like this, Ratramnus therefore argued that the cynocephali were indeed humans.

Naturally this account tells us nothing about the dog-headed people themselves because dog-headed people aren’t real (no matter what the Goofy-truthers will tell you). That there aren’t any Scandinavia is demonstrated by their absence from award-winning crime dramas wearing really nice knitwear. This description does however tell us an awful lot about Ratramnus, what he thought it meant to be human and what he felt was natural about the society he lived in. The assumptions he made when he reasoned about the implications of the cynocephali having villages are instructive here, that such a thing would require the existence of a formal law code, and that a sense of morality would also manifest in a legal code being just two of them. These are logical steps we might not necessarily make ourselves.

But this passage also gets at the deeper ideas Ratramnus had about being human. For Ratramnus, living in permanent settlements, participating in cereal agriculture and wearing clothes weren’t individual decisions or the contingent result of societies interacting with their environments and past patterns of behaviour over multiple centuries. Instead they were the natural outgrowth of rationality, which would be expected from a rational being, any rational being, no matter where they were or what their context was.

There is something intuitively appealing about a definition of humanity that doesn’t get stuck on ‘surface’ questions of body but rather cares about the ‘really important’ issue of our minds. There’s a reason we immodestly named ourselves Homo sapiens. We like to think that our intelligence is our most important characteristic. The fact that this allows someone in the middle ages to extend the branch of fraternity to a group of people who look nothing like him is worth noting. Similar patterns of thought would be really important for the Europeans who defended the humanity of American Indians in the Spanish Empire by reference to the cities and art of Pre-Colombian civilisation.

But Ratramnus also reveals the drawbacks of this way of thinking. One is that it ultimately devolves to what the beholder believes rational behaviour to be. Ratramnus believed that villages populated by cereal agriculturalists who wore clothes was a natural human state. But in his lifetime, large numbers of people across Eurasia very happily got on with their lives while only following some or none of these patterns of behaviour. The pastoral nomads of the steppe, who were by no means unheard of in the Carolingian world, are an obvious example. By Ratramnus’ logic, their ‘irrational’ way of life would render them not human. This wouldn’t just apply to external groups. Within the past century, we can list numerous examples of marginal groups defined by behaviour deemed unusual by the rest of society, such as homosexuals, being labelled as ‘irrational’ and suffering as a consequence.

Another, more insidious problem is the potential difficulties for people whose minds genuinely do work differently from whatever the assumed normality is. Very few of us are obviously rational in our first year of life. Many of us will develop medical conditions in our lifetime which may impair our ability to reason as we age. It seems profoundly unsatisfactory to have a definition of humanity that one can acquire and then lose. Further, this type of definition can have potentially disastrous consequences for people with conditions such as Down syndrome, which may leave them vulnerable to having their humanity stripped from them, only deepening the ableism they already face in society.

‘Ninth-century writer believed things we don’t anymore’ is hardly headline news. The point here isn’t to browbeat Ratramnus for being stupid, something he most certainly wasn’t. Instead, I’d like to close with a couple of thoughts. The first is that definitions of humanity are the products of the time in which they emerge. They are contingent upon the intellectual resources available to the people doing the defining and the place in which they decide to draw the line between natural and learned behaviour. The second is to observe that the middle ages often gets a bad rap as an age of intolerance and narrow-minded persecution. That’s a reputation that has something behind it (although I’m not convinced that its notably more so than in most periods of history before the mid to late twentieth century). But Ratramnus was not alone in his expanded definition of humanity, which allowed him to see himself in the dog-headed people. This vision of being human that depended on what a person thought rather than what they looked like, speaks to a rather more open middle ages than its image might suggest.

[Editor’s note: Sam was too modest to mention it in his post, but he has in fact written a whole article about cynocephali, rationality, and urbanism, which you can find by clicking this fine and well-crafted hyperlink.


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