Medieval Identity Machines

Medieval Identity Machines

Medieval Identity Machines

Medieval Identity Machines


In Medieval Identity Machines, Jeffrey J. Cohen examines the messiness, permeability, and perversity of medieval bodies, arguing that human identity always exceeds the limits of the flesh. Combining critical theory with a rigorous reading of medieval texts, Cohen asks if the category "human" isn't too small to contain the multiplicity of identities. As such, this book is the first to argue for a "posthuman" Middle Ages and to make extensive use of the philosophical writings of Gilles Deleuze to rethink the medieval. Among the topics that Cohen covers are the passionate bond between men and horses in chivalric training; the interrelation of demons, celibacy, and colonialism in an Anglo-Saxon saint's life; Lancelot's masochism as envisioned by Chretien de Troyes; the voice of thunder echoing from Margery Kempe; and the fantasies that sustained some dominant conceptions of race. This tour of identity--in all its fragility and diffusion--illustrates the centrality of the Middle Ages to theory as it enhances our,understanding of self, embodiment, and temporality in the medieval world.


We write the best history when the specificity,
the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our
sources render up bowls us over with its
complexity and significance…. Every view
of things that is not wonderful is false.

—Caroline Walker Bynum, “Wonder”

This intensive way of reading, in contact with
what's outside the book, as a flow meeting
other flows, one machine among others, as a
series of experiments for each reader in the
midst of events that have nothing to do with
books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting
it to interact with other things, absolutely
anything… is reading with love.

—Gilles Deleuze,
“Letter to a Harsh Critic” in Negotiations

We know its contours from biology textbooks, from the charts in the doctor's office and health reports, from Leonardo da Vinci's circumscription of its energetic form within the boundaries of a circle, from forensic outlines that trace the murdered dead. The human body consists, simply enough, of a torso to which are attached a head, two arms, and two legs. We have glimpsed this familiar body's insides through numerous technologies of visibility: anatomical diagrams, x-ray machines, magnetic . . .

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