The medieval book has this week been on the media stage, what with a debate about inks on goat vellum and a political analyst eating his book live on Sky News. In this post, I take a deeper look at the philosophy behind skin, bodies, books, and consumption. From Bartholomew to Bridget Jones, from communion to fat-shaming, here is a piece for your digestive pleasure.
What happens if we blur the lines between past and present, between self and other, between writing and cognition? In these columns I invite you to consume the texts presented at your own pace. This is both an exercise in engaged reading, and an exploration of the concept of eating the book. (Book? What is that?)
The image of eating the book recurs in both the Old and New testaments of the bible, and in early Jewish writings (Philo of Alexandria). A parchment book, a typical medieval manuscript, is made from treated animal skin, with hair side and flesh side discernible by touch. Words, then, are made in the mind, and written by flesh on flesh. The parchment is thus a double embodiment: that of the word and the flesh. It is also a symbol of human knowledge and of the dominion of man over beast as granted at the creation. The feast of St Bartholomew, the disciple of Jesus who was flayed before his martyrdom, was celebrated annually in the medieval church; he is often depicted visually being flayed, holding a knife, or carrying his skin. In the medieval Christian west, those who could own and read parchment books were either affluent or ordained: in both cases, they would be educated in the ways of the church, and would know their saints, particularly the twelve apostles.
In the gospel of John, which Christianises the Jewish image of the personified word, the messiah is the Word made flesh (John 1:1–5; 10–14). For Paul, the Eucharist is an extension of this: by echoing Jesus' actions at the last supper, the Eucharist becomes a fulfilment of the prophecy of the eating of the book in Ezekiel that in turn allows Christians to call themselves 'children of God' (1 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Echoing Ezekiel, in Revelations John of Patmos finds the book, the Word, to taste sweet, but eating it brings truth that changes not only him, but others via his words (Revelations 10:8-11). Consuming the word is pleasurable, but learning from it is harder. The relationship between the Christian Eucharist and the (medieval) practice of reading words on parchment is made clear in the eighth century by Beatus of Liébana: the act of reading is itself a Eucharist with the word. According to Augustine, the word changes the body it enters (Confessions 7.10).
In more recent times, however, the concepts of eating and nourishment seem to have become less connected, but there are nevertheless a multitude of recent popular and scholarly writings with titles such as ‘Data Made Flesh’ and ‘Let Them Eat Code’ (don’t believe me? Do a Google search). There is a continuing explicit connection between eating and text in the digital age. In addition, the idea of eating changing the body of the eater is still commonplace today. The discourses of ‘fat’ (and ‘fat shaming’) that pervade Western media firmly place the agency on the (usually female) eater, not what is eaten, and the result of the consumption is then etched on the (female) body. Eating changes the body that eats, and changing the body changes the mind.
When we read a text, we come closer to that text. We break it down into chunks, taste it, chew it, consume it. It does not leave our body as waste, but becomes part of us. In summer 2016 I overheard a tea-break conversation at a medieval convention where one delegate asked another about the transubstantiation: ‘But what happens afterwards? How can you shit God?’ Alas, neither interlocutor had read Augustine. For Augustine, the fifth-century African bishop who always seems to get there first, was right. A text cannot be un-read: even if we reject it entirely, it remains read, part of our cognitive self. If the greatest disservice we can do to a text is to not read it, then the second greatest is to read it and ignore it: non-citation is itself a negative response (and is the reason I provide no references to fat-shaming). Ignorance, too, is a tool. To not make the effort to find a text — for example, to not strive for an inclusive syllabus in teaching, or to publish an article whose reference list is 80% white cis men — is itself an act of aggression. Consuming the text still changes us, but if we do not allow ourselves even an awareness of so many texts, how can we change?
‘Do not rebel that like rebellious house; open your mouth and eat that I give you.’ Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel’. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ...
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-5; 10-14
The lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body and blood of the Lord eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
1 Corinthians 11:23-27
Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more. ‘Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’ So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, ‘Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’ I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations languages and kings.’
Thus we, in our wholeness, eat a whole book; and our body, which is Christ’s body, is joined with Christ, its head; one being, whole and complete, and with him we are one person.
Beatus of Liébana, Apologeticum 1.110; 824, cited and translated in Catherine Brown, “In the Middle”, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000): 547–574, 559
‘How many calories are you supposed to eat if you are on a diet?’, he said.
‘About a thousand. Well, I usually aim for a thousand and come in at about fifteen hundred,’ I said, realising as I said it that the last bit wasn’t strictly true.
‘A thousand?’ said Tom, incredulously. ‘But I thought you needed two thousand just to survive.’
I looked at him nonplussed. I realised that I have spent so many years on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where nutritional ideal is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is that they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves breaking out and ruining their diets.
Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’ Diary, London: Picador, 1996, 9 November