Sunday, October 28, 2012


A pair of firestones, from a twelfth-century English Bestiary.  And the first interesting thing is simply the appearance of stones in a book about beasts: these are beastly stones, then, and so lively rocks.  And as living things, of course, they are gendered.  One category distinction, that between animate and inanimate, is refused and so that another, between male and female, can be extended.  Their gendering is crucial to the meaning that the bestiary text assigns to the stones.  Kept apart, male and female firestones are perfectly safe; but put together, they immediately burst into flame.  Just so its better to the keep male and female religious apart - and for male religious to keep away from women entirely - otherwise the flames of lust will be ignited.

But.  What is curious to me about this and other images of firestones, is the way they downplay the distinction of gender.  Firestones may be male and female, but in these images they don't really look all that different.  In this image in particular, both have long hair that curls down their backs.  Both have big hands in similar poses that make active pointing gestures.  And both have prominent curved shapes on their chests.   The female, on the right, is identified only by her nipples, and the male, on the left, by a beard  But apart from those small signs, they are remarkably similar.  Could this also be, at a first glance and so for a few moments at least, that supposedly safe single-gender environment?  And nevertheless be going up in flames? 

Another set of firestones, from a thirteenth century Bestiary.  At the top of the page, the two are divided, I would assume into that supposedly safe single-gendered environment.  But if that's what it is, then both are alone there.  And they are divided by a tree, but it also joins them together, and gives the scene a very Adam and Eve in the garden kind of feel.   It could be the moment before the fall, which was also a fall into gendered difference: first revealed by Eve's weakness when faced by temptation and by her tempting of Adam, and then reinforced when he is set to work and her to bear children in pain.  But in this image, both of the figures are picking fruits from the tree - together and simultaneously.   And again, the two look remarkably similar: the one on the right maybe has longer hair, but that's about it.  Below, as the central tree disappears, they wrap their arms around each others' shoulders, while flames shoot up from below.  They are essentially mirror images of one another and so I again see that supposedly safe single-gendered combination itself going up in flames.  Maybe the only safety is in solitude?  


A few more thoughts on these after reading Jeffrey Cohen's post on them over at In the Middle and following up his link to the manuscript from which the second comes.

First, in the manuscript, the firestones images appears on the page before the text on firestones.  The text on the page with the image is actually about death - its the conclusion of a longer text on different words for the dead person, the dead body, the funeral, etc.  What an interesting juxtaposition for these very lively stones.  The text about the firestones themselves, then, appears on the following page and mentions both Eve - as having been tempted - and Adam - as the first to have been harmed by the love of women.   That follows up nicely on the Adam and Eve (or Adam and Steve?) suggestion in the firestones image itself.  Finally, the firestones text appears on the page with another image of a very different stone - the adamas stone - and the beginning of the text on this type of rock.  The adamas image is interestingly different, as Jeffrey Cohen points out, as it is shown as a stone not as a human form and it is shown all alone on the top of a mountain.

Maybe maybe maybe, the layout of this manuscript would allow me to mix and match, though, and see the adamas image as a solitary firestone.  That is, as a firestone kept from bursting into flame by being kept carefully apart - not just from stones of the other gender, but from all stones, and really from everything.   Maybe maybe maybe, this rock's splendid isolation pictures my final thought from above - that the only safety lies in solitude.  But then safety also comes with the loss of humanity, the solitary stone's loss of anthropomorphic form.  And finally then, maybe, the lesson here has to do with community.  That only through interaction with others do we become human, but that always bring with it the danger of it going up in flames.