‘Curious Twins’ – Critical Quarterly, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp. 47–58

My paper, in a special issue of the journal Critical Quarterly, is now available (£) online. The essay came about through my doctoral research with Steven Connor, who left The London Consortium for Cambridge in 2012. Thanks to Joe Brooker for convening the event and editing the resulting collection, Weather Reports.

Abstract The meaning and significance of human twins is shaped by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, many of which employ twins to test a variety of hypotheses about who or what we are. Whether twins are viewed as physical anomalies, religious miracles, or scientific marvels, criteria can be identified according to which they are separated from those born alone. This article attends to the ways in which twins are differentiated and shows how they have been used as living evidence or proof that supports sociological, religious, and scientific practice. By collating examples taken from the humanities, the social and biomedical sciences – with particular attention paid to works of social anthropology and molecular biology – William Viney seeks to articulate both the differing scales by which twins become distinct objects of research and how this sense of scale affects the extent to which they are understood as active, formative agents in those research endeavours, used to substantiate, clarify and inform. The wider aim of this article is to understand the dynamic means by which twins are drawn into and sustain explanatory narratives that extend far beyond the twin relation, taken to be generative objects in the formation of new knowledge. By tracing the exceptional cultural life of twins across different fields of inquiry we can better understand the utility of sustaining particular, exclusive human groups, both as an experimental means and as the evidential ends of research practice.

Are Twin Studies the Closest We Get to Doing Animal Experiments On Humans?

Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928 A version of this paper will be given at Reading Animals, The University of Sheffield, 17–20 July, 2014.

Betteridige’s Law states that every newspaper headline that is presented in the form of a rhetorical question is to be answered with a ‘no’: “Is Michael Jackson living on a desert island with rappers Tupac and Biggie?” No. “Does eating meat 5-times a day create immunity to cancer?” No. “Does the proposition of a newspaper headline when formed through a rhetorical question always constitute a false preposition?” Obviously this doesn’t bear too much thinking about, but the question: do twin studies – that is, using human twins in research into problems posed in epidemiology, molecular genetics, and behaviour genetics – constitute “the closest we get to doing animal experiments on humans” is a question without an obvious response.  Jokingly, one geneticist thinks that twin studies are indeed “the closest we can get to doing animal experiments on humans.”[1]. The question of doing experiments on human animals is, for me, a matter of animacy – a matter of life and death, matter in life and death. Since my research concerns experiments on humans and I participate in research with humans (mostly epigenetic research, but also cognitive neuroscientific imaging studies, epidemiological studies, and others). I am, as they say, entangled within this statement; ‘entangled’ in the sense that Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald have recently described as those “temporary, local assemblages of motivation, interest, people and machinery.” These ‘entanglements’ make it possible “to momentarily think something exterior to the ‘disciplinary’ orthodoxies of experimental and conceptual practice, and the taken-for-granted dynamics of power that underwrite much of their relationship.”[2] Being entangled in this way means that I cannot ‘claim to know where others believe’ to favour the refrain of activist and politically conservative collectives, to condemn someone for not doing something or other. Instead, being entangled means that I am not going to offer you a satisfying response to the question . I want to understand what might be common to experiments on humans and non-humans, to reveal their entanglement, and speculate as to what alternatives might be available to us.

Humans are experimented upon, cut up, observed, named, stitched back together, engineered and synthesised. As well as this situation always, somehow, calling into question what ‘the human’ might mean, the peculiarly animate relations with things assumed to be ‘outside’ the domain of ‘humanity’, brings the animal and the twin to entwine in their co-dependent relation with the experimental. More on that in a bit. For those that don’t know, Mel Chen has brilliantly documented this and allied problems in her award-winning book, Animacies, published by Duke University Press in 2012. This blog post operates as a kind of extended commentary on Mel’s provocations, and I acknowledge a debt to her for a path she has shown to me. However, when considering the status of experiments on live human subjects, a challenge arises in Mel’s book and in my own research regarding the ethics of defending humans against perceived instrumentalisation, objectification, and misanthropy, in times when the relation between humans and non-humans is being systematically, though diversely, challenged by actors big and small, live and dead, benign and war-mongering.

Those born together in a single gestation first entered studies of heredity, genetics, and then a wide range of allied fields and subfields, through Galton’s biometric analysis of “nature and nurture”– a phrase first coined in relation to his twin studies of the mid 1870s. Guided by depth biology, with an implied division between inner and outer, interior natures and exterior environments, Galton hoped to discover the mechanisms that allowed twins to “keep[…] time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except for some physical jar”[3] From Galton we can trace the long process that has scientifically en-thinged twins – recruited them as evidence and material, imagining and treating them as tools in order to animate new theories of life, development, and disease. Over 1.5 million twins and family members now participate in research worldwide, measured for a huge variety of physical and behavioural traits. Chen, whose academic background is in comparative linguistics, argues that “language users use animacy hierarchies [which is to say: the gradations of sentience, lifeliness, meaning, and individuality] to manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”.[4] With this in mind, consider the status of twins when researchers like Nancy Segal – a psychologist based in California – refer to her research participants as “a powerful investigatory tool”[5] or as “living laboratories”[6] Twins matter here, but particularly as they serve as efficient, exploratory and contingent, and future-oriented tools. Robert Plomin – a behavioural geneticist based at the Institute of Psychiatry in London – describes his studies of identical twins who differ for a given phenotype as “a sharp scalpel for dissecting non-shared environmental effects from genetic effects.”[7] Twins, then, are ‘technical things’ absorbed into experimental systems and used to bring to light and make matter the epistemic objects that comprise molecular processes, bringing to light complex organic systems, at once synonymous and experimentally distinct from those systems.[8]  I think we broach another question here: What are twin objects when they enter research paradigms as argumentative, demonstrative figures that render them tools, twin-tools, and thus ‘the closest tie’, the most ‘harmonius relation’, even an opportunity to understand the mysteries of so-called ‘person-to-person telepathy’? And here’s the rub – when humans are objectified in this way, with their pre and post-natal lives a proof of meaning, polyvalently attached – are we to respond with outrage and maintain the privileges of our species? So great are the associations between the animal rights and animal experimentation, that when the human takes the place of the place of the animal, an uncomfortable confusion of roles takes place. How we guide ourselves through this confusion is crucial, especially if the molecular substances discovered through twin studies are to be given any ontological reality outside the self-centred hermeneutic loops of European phenomenology, which grounds the animal in the consciousness-dependent otherness of the thing, to understand the thing/the animal through an instrumental for-ness. However, even beyond that tradition, where Husserl, Heidegger, Satre and Merleau-Ponty, are made absent, we can find philosophers like Martha Nussbaum defining the process of objectification through the human’s opposition to and distinction from a ‘thing’. For her, objectification occurs where “one is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being.”[9] Twins, however, are not only treated as or “blended” with things – as if ‘things’ should be also understood as separate to the human body – but twins, especially when they are used in the kind of scientific research I am thinking of are fundamentally interanimating; experimental bodies understood as a complex assemblage of cell lines, gene expression levels, methylation sites, and microbial communities, to name just a few kinds of ‘matter’ that twin research has tried to articulate. Notwithstanding this thingliness – twins remain human twins, realised in and through and perhaps despite their things that are explored through them.

It’s for this reason that I find Mel Chen’s animacy scale, or cline, both incredibly useful but also rather too linear for my purposes, her discursive approach narrows the range of practices that I take to doubly en-thing twins – practices that not only render them technical objects in contemporary genomic research – beings that are corporeally and ideationally measured, sampled, computed, and ‘shared’ as part of a globally-configured experimental apparatus – but also providing the evidence for what Nikolas Rose has characterized as the “molecularization of vitality”; which, with and among other things, decomposes, anatomizes, manipulates, amplifies, and reproduces “tissues, proteins, molecules, and drugs […] to be regarded, in many respects, as manipulable and transferable elements or units, which can delocalized – moved from place to place, from organism to organism, from disease to disease, from person to person.”[10] Here the role of animacy forces a set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological decisions that, for me, makes a critical medical humanities approach to twins necessary and possible – should twins be defended against instrumentality, safeguarding an autonomous, lively, unique, unbreakable and free ‘human’? Or, can we break with the scales of anthropocentric privilege since, doing so, pursues the more difficult and critical – ‘critical’, as in ‘urgent’ or ‘decisive’ – and certainly more risky task of understanding how and why twins come to matter in different ways and at different times? Indeed, a productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, would be to look at how the history of the concept of “animal models” relates to the modelling practices that involve twins. Doing so might allow us to ask the following kind of questions – How are the technical as well as the rhetorical dimensions of research extrapolation handled with different bodies? How exactly are human-nonhuman animacies mobilised across supposedly different research practices, and to what end? In what sense does one form of modelling beget and “model” the other form, adding layers of complexity already at work but made intangible or invisible through the pomp and ceremony of institutional PR? I suspect that these ‘models’ share rather a lot, grounding animal and human research practices in ontologies of animate matter which shore up violent, experimental, and progressive epistemologies alike.

[1]Quoted in Lucy Jolin, ‘Nature’s Control Group’, In Touch, Spring 2013, p. 22. [2] Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, private correspondence. [3]Galton, ‘The History of Twins as a Criterion of Nature and Nurture’, p. 574 [4]Chen, Animacies, p. 42. [5] Nancy L. Segal, Born Together–Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), p. 2, pp. 10–11. [6]Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), p. 1. [7] Robert Plomin, ‘Commentary: Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different? Non-Shared Environment Three Decades Later’,International Journal of Epidemiology 40 (2011), p. 587. [8] For more on the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘epistemic’ thing taken from Hans–Jorg Rheinberger, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: California University Press, 1997), pp. 28–29. [9]Martha Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24. 4 (1995), p.257 [10]Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.13, p. 15.

Neuroscience and Social Science: Experimental Imaginations

This podcast was developed through Pod Academy – an open access podcasting initiative based in London.

This podcast is about the relations between the social sciences and the neurosciences, and what it might mean to do interdisciplinary work between these areas. Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, two social scientists interested in stepping outside the bounds of social-science methods, and especially experienced in engaging with neuroscientific experiments, offer a new way of thinking about collaboration between the social- and neuro-sciences. They call their approach ‘Experimental Entanglements’.

Research on the brain, as well as the widespread dissemination of this research, has significantly shaped our understanding of what it is to be human in the 21st century. Indeed, many facets of human life that were, for much of the twentieth century, primarily understood through tNeuroartRaymond Tallis has, in contrast, argued that it poses the gravest of intellectual threats. Indeed, Tallis is far from being the only one to have worried about the reductive and potentially anti-humanist tendencies of the neurosciences.

And yet, beyond such debates, it is increasingly clear that the more that scientists experiment on and with the human brain, the more it becomes clear that our brains, and the experimental and intellectual practices that attend to them, are bound up in cultural, semiotic, bodily, societal and aesthetic ‘webs’. The current situation in cognitive neuroscience – with techniques such as functional neuroimaging available in ever more sophisticated forms – is ripe for a new level of interdisciplinary engagement.

In the last few years, both Callard and Fitzgerald have participated in a number of explicitly designed ‘interdisciplinary’ ventures that have attempted to bring neuroscientists and social scientists together. The European Network of Neuroscience and Society (ENSN) and the Volkswagen Foundation’s European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences and the Humanities are two of these. Indeed, Fitzgerald and Callard first developed their approach of ‘experimental entanglement’ in a workshop held at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, which they co-designed, and which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. In this podcast they reflect especially on the opportunities and constraints offered by such ‘interdisciplinary’ ventures. They counter a model in which social scientists and neuroscientists simply ‘interact’ with one another, secure in their own disciplinary arenas, and instead propose a much more complex and awkward practice of ‘experimental entanglement,’ in which to collaborate both in and beyond the neuroscientific laboratory.

NeurotrypchThe podcast touches on existing experimental collaborations. Fitzgerald discusses his research in the Urban Brain Lab at King’s College London, which focuses on the overlap between sociology and neuroscience in questions around city life and mental health – and asks what a shared investigation across these disciplines can and should look like. Callard discusses her on-going collaboration on the brain and mind ‘at rest’ with neuroscientists and psychologists. For much of the twentieth century, psychologists were heavily preoccupied with studying how people respond to external tasks, which made it harder for scientists to bring together biology, psychology and culture to get at what the brain, mind and body are doing when they are ‘at rest’ (i.e. not responding to an external task).

In contrast to usual social scientific interest in effects, ethics, or outcomes of the neurosciences as such, Fitzgerald’s and Callard’s collaborative approach focuses on the ‘experiment’ as a space of creative intervention – and it uses the concept of ‘entanglement’ to current bureaucratic and academic fixations on ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’. What could experimental practices look like in the twenty-first century, they ask, in which so-called neurological knowledge and so-called sociological and cultural knowledge tumble over one another in a way that ultimately makes it hard to distinguish one from the other?

Their programmatic statement about such an approach is available, Open Access, in the journal Theory, Culture & Society (‘Social Science and Neuroscience Beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements’). They are authors of the forthcoming monograph Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences (Palgrave). From October 2014, Fitzgerald will participate in, and Callard will be Group Leader of, the inaugural project in The Hub at Wellcome Collection, working with neuroscientists, artists, social scientists and humanities scholars to develop experimental entanglements that are focused around rest, busyness and exertion at the scales of the brain, mind, body, organism and city.

The Comedy of Twins: Shakespeare and the Biology of Drama

In his introduction to the play, Stephen Greenblatt argues that the identical twins which feature in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, “are fairly commonplace and the fact that two people can bear the same name even more so, but Shakespeare’s play calls attention to all that is potentially disorienting in the routine circumstances of life.”[1] It is hard to understand what Greenblatt means when he says that “identical twins are fairly commonplace” – in what era, for whom, in what sense? In biological terms they are neither commonplace nor are they rare. In historical terms, being born identical in the late-sixteenth century was extremely hazardous, especially for the twins but more particularly for the mother bearing them. Moreover, the equation suggested in this quotation between identical twins and “routine” and “life”, again elides the biological and historical specificity of multiple birth, and the artistic transformation implied by bringing identical twins to a stage of observation that is both comic and tragic. What Greenblatt “calls to attention” is rather more a narrow understanding of what it means to be and see twins, which he suggest are “as like one another as two coins of equal value”[2] By monetising twinship in this way he overlooks the challenge of staging twins, where one must select players that are not and cannot be identically alike, that are not made of metal but of flesh and bone and genes and hair and so on, and that are not of equal value. Such are the disembodied and paper-based assumptions of a cultural materialist, inattentive to the physicality of theatre and the biology of playing up and out.

 [1] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 683–684.

[2] Stephen Greenblatt, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, in The Norton Shakespeare, p. 688.

Animate Twins, Molecular Things

I presented this paper to the Centre for Critical Theory at University of Nottingham. Many thanks go to Andy Goffey for the invitation.

I’d like to open a conversation about animacy, matter, and the molecular status of twins, to question what it is that makes urgent the peculiar exigency of twins, the sense that they are both with ‘us’ and against ‘us,’ and so throwing doubt over what sort of ‘us’ is being claimed and where that relation is being located. I would be truly grateful for any comments or recommendations you might have, anything that you feel seems important or germane, but equally, I’d like to invite an intellectual mercy killing if you think that I’m going seriously off the rails.

In what follows I’d like to provide a commentary on Mel Chen’s work on ‘animacies’, a concept that relates to, describes, and can help challenge hierarchies of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveness, to patrol the distinction between what is ‘alive’ and ‘dead.’ Chen argues a scale of animacy has supported normative concepts of ‘the human’ since, at least, Aristotle’s De Anima, and continues to regulate “gradations of lifeliness”[1] from inanimate, ‘dead things’ – minerals, stones and other non-sentient objects – constitute a zero-degree of agency – through to vegetables, smaller insects and non-vertebrates, to larger animals, mammals, children, women, and finally Man as a maximally agentive figure. Animacy stratifies Nature according to liveness, purpose, and sentience over which humans assume privileged access.

For Chen, understanding the racialised, sexualised and abelised political ecologies that can feed off and maintain the animacy scale helps to “trouble the binary of life and nonlife [to give a clearer] way to conceive of relationality and intersubjective exchange”.[2] The failures, breaks, and contradictions between the animate and inanimate reveal how the scale of animacy “must continually interanimate in spite of its apparent fixedness”[3] – hence, her book is called ‘animacies’ on the understanding that other practices, epistemologies, and ontologies are possible.

Ok, so how do twins fit in? And this, perhaps, is my main point, fittedness doesn’t quite cover the specific and often contradictory forms of mobility that twins achieve along this unstable cline, a mobility that is neither ‘culturally’ or ‘naturally’ directed, but articulates itself through the numerous ways that twin bodies can, do, and might matter.

There are a number of ways that twins may interanimate across and along the animacy hierarchy – from a sense of incongruent codependence, to adult infantalisation, to the ableist logic of extrasensory communication to the dis-ableism of infant language impairment. But I’ll focus the rest of this paper on the use of twins in the natural sciences, especially in psychology, genetics, and epidemiology, where they are thought of and make explicit ‘things’; people whose agentive powers both plunge down the animacy scale through their instrumentalisation as and proximity to laboratory materials, animals, and tools – ‘the non-human’ – and projected up the animacy scale, for being a powerful investigatory community generating, to quote one twin researcher “unique insights […] simply by acting naturally”[4]. Their every life event, decision is resonant with scientifically universal information ­– their bodies are used to stabilise and articulate new vital locations, processes, and therapeutic possibilities.. This is “knowledge and insight for everyone,” to quote one leading epidemiologist, “not just for twins”[5] It’s this particular animation of twins that I’d like to focus on for the rest of this paper and I hope to have time later to consider whether there’s a materialism of twinship that permits us to look at relations and intersubjective exchange in a different light.

***

So: twin things. Those born together in a single gestation first entered studies of heredity, genetics, and then a wide range of allied fields and subfields, through Galton’s biometric analysis of “nature and nurture”– a phrase first coined in relation to his twin studies of the mid 1870s. Guided by depth biology Galton hoped to discover the mechanisms that allowed twins to “keep[…] time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except for some physical jar”[6] From Galton we can trace the long process that has scientifically en-thinged twins – recruited them as evidence and material, imagined and treated as tools in order to animate new theories of life, development, and disease. Over 1.5 million twins and family members now participate in research worldwide, measured for a huge variety of physical and behavioural traits.

Chen, whose academic background is in comparative linguistics, argues that “language users use animacy hierarchies to manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”.[7] With this in mind, consider the status of twins when researchers like Nancy Segal refer to her research participants as “a powerful investigatory tool”[8] or as “living laboratories”[9] Twins matter, but particularly as they serve as efficient, exploratory and contingent tools. Robert Plomin describes his studies of identical twins who differ for a given phenotype as “a sharp scalpel for dissecting non-shared environmental effects from genetic effects.”[10] Twins are ‘technical things’ absorbed into experimental systems and used to bring to light and make matter the epistemic objects that comprise molecular processes.[11] Returning to the animacy scale, I think this use of twins problematizes both the inanimate, stone-like inertia of ‘the thing’ and the spatial and temporal integrity of its all-powerful human antagonist. However, I’m not sure that Chen’s work gives satisfactory guidance when she argues that “when humans are blended with objects along this cline, they are effectively ‘dehumanized’ and simultaneously de-subjectified and objectified”.[12] She uses a distinction between object and subject that finds sustenance in Martha Nussbaum’s claim that objectification occurs whenever “one is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being.”[13] Twins, however, are not only treated as or “blended” with things, but are experimental bodies understood as a complex assemblage of cell lines, gene expression levels, methylation sites, and microbial communities, to name just a few kinds of ‘matter’ that twin research has tried to articulate. Somehow, twins remain human twins, realised in and through and perhaps despite their thingliness.

It’s for this reason that I find Chen’s animacy scale or cline both incredibly useful but also rather linear, her discursive approach too narrow for the range of practices that I take to doubly en-thing twins – practices that not only render them technical objects in contemporary genomic research – beings that are measured, sampled, computed, and ‘shared’ as part of a globally-configured experimental apparatus – but also providing the evidence for what Nikolas Rose has characterized as the “molecularization of vitality”; which, with and among other things, decomposes, anatomizes, manipulates, amplifies, and reproduces “tissues, proteins, molecules, and drugs […] to be regarded, in many respects, as manipulable and transferable elements or units, which can be delocalized – moved from place to place, from organism to organism, from disease to disease, from person to person.”[14]

Here the role of animacy forces a set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological decisions that, for me, makes a critical medical humanities approach to twins necessary and possible – should twins be defended against instrumentality, safeguarding an autonomous, lively, unique, unbreakable and free ‘human’, or, can we break with the scales of anthropocentric privilege since, doing so, pursues the more difficult and critical – as in urgent or decisive – and certainly more risky task of understanding how and why twins come to matter in different ways and at different times.

***

If animating twins permits a recalibration of what it means to instrumentalise bodies conceived at a molecular scale, then I join those who are keen to challenge the strict partition between a human inner and non-human outer – to perforate “the exclusionary zone made of the perceptual operands of phenomenology”[15], and, by dismissing its correlationist accessory, which thrives through a plural multiculturism set against a static mononaturalism, I take the study of twin animacies to open up different, transcorporeal, transobjective socialities. Mel Chen’s characterisation of molecular intimacy is, I think, somewhat problematic, based as it is on physical absorption and assimilation: “When physically co-present with others, I ingest them. There is nothing fanciful about this. I am ingesting their exhaled air, their sloughed skin, and the skin of tables, chairs, and carpet of our shared room”.[16] I am both wary of the notion of physical co-presence being valorised and relied on here but also of how Chen’s human-nonhuman assemblies bare some similarity to Jane Bennett’s attempts to elevate “the shared materiality of all things”[17] to stress how each human is “a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant, matter.”[18]As in Chen’s analysis, this vital materiality finds its force in accommodating and absorbing what is foreign. Bennett writes: “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners”[19] We might characterize some of this object-oriented thinking as operating under what Chen calls the “xenobiotic”[20] where the argumentative thrust of these new ontologies, which borrow so much from molecular biology, follow particular trajectories of inclusion as they extend agency into the world by locating the nonhuman within.

***

To revive Chen’s description of the animacy scale and apply it to her own interanimations, I want to ask in what way does focusing on particular kinds of vibrant things “manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”? What, after so many years of humanistic, anti-essentialist broadsides against molecular biology, are we to make of the genetic matter that co-ordinates the somatic identity of twins in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Because, if there is one question same-sex twins are asked by strangers it is this: identical or non-identical, monozygotic or dizygotic? This is gene talk through and through and it’s how twin bodies matter between molar and molecular scales. Despite the informatic metaphors of gene action – where ‘codes’ and ‘scripts’ are ‘read’ and ‘translated’ – ­Barry Barnes and John Dupré remind us that “DNA is stuff, and we are able to relate directly to it and gain knowledge of it as such–where to find it, how to separate it off, how it behaves as material, and so forth […] DNA is indeed a tangible material substance.”[21] Through twins and the research in which they participate, that tangibility has been made possible. And its on this basis that, in my approach to twinning, I want to resist the absolute collapse of the inner and outer, the rather lava-lamp-like materialism of the xenobiotic, since one does not become a twin in the same way one becomes infected or toxic; twinship may share something in common with concepts of biosociality, biological or genetic citizenship, but not in the same way that all of these terms have become tied in the STS and sociology literature to the circulation of “disease, disfigurement or disability”[22], what we might think of as the ‘proper terrain’ of biopolitics. No, I think the animate matter of twins makes another perspective possible; one that does not let the molecular elide the molar and one that does not over- or undermine the physicality of genes, but one that opens up the thingliness of specific people whose animate identity is internally-external, materially distributed within and between bodies.

[1] Chen, Animacies: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 167.

[2] Chen, Animacies, p.11.

[3] Chen, Animacies, p.30

[4] Nancy Segal, ‘Twins: The Finest Natural Experiment’, Personality and Individual Differences 49 (2010), p. 317.

[5] Tim Spector, ‘The Use of Twins in Research’. BRC Biomedical Forum, Guy’s Hospital, 9th January 2013.

[6] Galton, ‘The History of Twins as a Criterion of Nature and Nurture’, p. 574

[7] Chen, Animacies, p. 42.

[8] Nancy L. Segal, Born Together–Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), p. 2.

[9] Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), p. 1.

[10] Robert Plomin, ‘Commentary: Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different? Non-Shared Environment Three Decades Later’,International Journal of Epidemiology 40 (2011), p. 587.

[11] For more on the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘epistemic’ thing taken from Hans–Jorg Rheinberger, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: California University Press, 1997), pp. 28–29.

[12] Chen, Animacies, p. 40

[13] Martha Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24. 4 (1995), p.257

[14] Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.13, p. 15.

[15] Chen, Animacies, p.209

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 13.

[18] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, pp. 12–13.

[19] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, p. 112

[20] Chen, Animacies, p. 208.

[21]­ Barry Barnes and John Dupré, Genomes and What to Make of Them (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2008), p. 64

[22] Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, p. 137.

Twin intimacies

This is a version of a short paper I gave at ‘Making a Scene: Networks of Intimacy’, at The Institute for Psychoanalysis, London. Friday 19th July, 2013. Thanks go to Jennifer Cooke for organising such an interesting symposium and for allowing me to present my work.

Twins are interesting to me because, among other things, they suggest a way of thinking about intimacy’s spectrum. From an inseparable physical bond (I’m thinking of conjoined twins here but not exclusively), to the spatial and temporal dynamics of parallel, interuterine gestation followed by birth, two by two, and subsequent dialogic development. We can extend these intimacies of birth and infancy to wider fantasies about being separated from a lost twin, perhaps adopted at birth and later reunited in adulthood, meeting for the first time wearing the same clothes, liking the same music, smoking the same brand of cigarettes.

When reading academic literature about twins it’s really quite difficult to avoid statements like these, which draw heavily on the observed and assumed intimacy between twins. So, Dorothy Burlingham, the psychoanalyst and long-time partner of Anna Freud, claimed that twins represent the “closest tie between two individuals”[1] Her analytic studies led her to believe that twins enjoyed or suffered through an intimacy in their co-development, dependencies and emotional rapport. It is interesting to see how Nancy Segal broadly agrees with the claim that twins are uniquely close, but for rather more political and genetic reasons. The similar genetic make up of monozygotic twins means that they “come closer than anyone else to achieving the coordinated, harmonious relations for which we all strive”[2] Segal, herself a dizygotic twin, argues that monozygotic twins form a genetic bond that is unrivaled; a model or ideal of collective co-operation that the rest seek to emulate. Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist and researcher into morphic resonance, believes that, because twin’s relationships are lifelong, they “provide some of the best opportunities for studying person-to-person telepathy.”[3] We have, then, a third form of intimacy which depends on the popular idea that twins have a parapsychological connection, an intimacy of cognition.

Mallifert Twins
The Mallifert Twins (1981) by Charles Addams. Steven Pinker was so convinced by the genetic determination of complex behaviours, evidenced by studies like Thomas Bouchard’s Minnesota study (MISTRA), that he argued that the cartoon represents only “a slight exaggeration of the empirical state of affairs.” See The Blank Slate, 2003.

Of course, there are many ways to be a twin; not all are “bonded with the twin glue”.[4] Any conversation about twins must reckon with this presumed proximity, on various psychological, genetic or cognitive grounds, and to take on twins is to in some sense to enter a rather maddening chain of ideas which swirl around twins and their bodies, frequently taken to act as anchors, guarantors or forms of living proof for one thought or another. Our ideas about twins and twinship, I’d like to argue, are therefore in a state of perpetual dialogue with a set of substitutes – ‘proximity’, ‘similitude’, ‘likeness’, ‘closeness’, ‘exclusivity’ – let us call them what they are, relatives beset by terms of relativity, a kind of currency in an economy of ideas about what we are or could be. Twins are useful, then, for their supposed intimacy – emotional, corporeal, real or imagined. They are a useful resource.

I want to give some examples, not to confirm that twins are indeed great intimates and companions, much less the “closest tie between two individuals”, but to show how this twin attachment has been put to work for a set of wider arguments that extend well beyond the twin relation. These will be sporadic episodes and my conclusions will focus not on their explicit connection but what is assumed to be existent in the twin relationship, that is, a closeness that is both unusually intimate and has a rhetorical power that is readily drawn upon.

1. There are plenty of twins in Greek and Indo-European myth – Artemis and Apollo, Heracles and Iphicles, Castor and Polydeuces (the Heavenly Twins, the Dioscuri). But I pick two early Christian examples because they are rarely commented upon. In second and third centuries AD the Gospel of Thomas was in circulation in Syria and nearby territories. The Gospel suggests a version of religious salvation, knowing and communion that had believers literally attaining the likeness of Christ and Christ taking the likeness of his followers. So Thomas, known as ‘Didymus’, which means ‘twin’ in Aramaic and Greek, appears as Christ’s substitute. In Thomas’s 11th saying, Christ visits some newlyweds who had just seen Thomas. “And he [the groom] saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas, who shortly before had blessed them and departed from them.” When asked what Thomas is doing in their wedding chamber, the groom is given this reply: “I am not Judas who is also Thomas, I am his brother.”[5] Elsewhere in the Gospel we read of a fascinating passage, where Jesus promises twinly metamorphosis: ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’”

Painting found in Scotland, 2012. Thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci.
Painting found in Scotland, 2012. Thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

Concurrent to the Syrian deification of twinship were monastic traditions operating in what is now Egypt and Libya that also stressed holy guidance and strength through a benevolent twin. When Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356) wanders in the desert, his salvation is said to have been secured by seeing an exteriorised version of himself:

He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.[6]

Twins are used to institute what Peter Sloterdijk has identified as the beginnings of “intimate religiosity”, a relationship between the interior space of the soul and a third-person perspective on oneself, an alternative or model. Sloterdijk claims that this sacred twinliness generates an internal closeness, a colonising style of thought within religious practice.[7]

2. Shakespeare’s plays contain multiple twins and Twelfth Night has one set, Viola and Sebastian. On seeing them together at the play’s finale, Antonio asks them both: “How have you made division of yourself? / An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin / Than these two creatures.” (5.1.215–217). Invoking a naturalised, original whole, an androgynously neoplatonic idea of human origins, Shakespeare has Antonio contemplate what Carolyn Heiburn called “an original unit which has split, a unit destined to be reunited by sexual love, the symbol of human conjoining”.[8] Aristophanes, in Plato’s The Symposium, argues that until Zeus “cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling” they were a single form “round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike”.[9] There is a flirtation with ironic incest in this use of Platonic speculation, since Viola, dressed as Cesario, is positioned as the potential lover of her brother. And yet it also offers a deep, causal history for why the twins yearn for one another’s company. Shakespeare’s twins are therefore a means to a dramatic end, used to discuss points of human origin, similitude and sexual desire; to account, in other words, for human difference, resemblance and attraction.

Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928. Complicit in Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz, it was von Verschuer frequently acknowledged Galton's influence, delivering a lecture at the Royal Society in June 1939 entitled, 'Twin Research from the Time of Francis Galton to the Present-Day’.
Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928. Complicit in Joseph Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz,  von Verschuer frequently acknowledged his intellectual debt to Galton, delivering a lecture at the Royal Society on 8th June 1939 entitled, ‘Twin Research from the Time of Francis Galton to the Present-Day’.

3. My final example of twin utility constitutes one of the most significant applications of twinship in recent times. Since Francis Galton claimed 130 years ago that some twins “are continually alike, the clocks of their two lives move regularly on at the same rate, governed by their internal mechanism”[10], the progress of human genetics has been bound to twins.[11] Geneticists have idealised them, loading them with promise and importance. They are, in the words of sociologist of science might call a “communities of promise”, filtered through the future-orientation of the biomedical sciences.[12] As I have mentioned elsewhere on this site, data from 1.5m twins is now stored in roughly 140 registries, or biobanks, worldwide.[13] The twin method that much of this research uses is relatively simple but highly contested. If you isolate one trait, eye colour for example, and compare genetically identical twins with non-identical twins, who are no more genetically alike than other siblings, then the statistical variance between the two groups for this trait is going to be caused by what divides them – genetics. This is because twin research uses the shared environment to control many variables that might otherwise confuse the comparison. What holds this method together is, therefore, an assumed lifelong intimacy – identical and non-identical twins share equal environments, equally. If twins share their environment absolutely, then the twin method is a model that projects an ideal environment, a kind of generalised intimacy, for all twins alike.

What I wish to stress is that the presumed intimacy of twins and its long history – whether in gnostic religion, early modern Platonic metaphysics or contemporary molecular genetics – has been and will continue to be profoundly useful to those looking for living proof for their ideas and beliefs. The intimacy of twins, therefore, may suggest a deep sense of interiority, intimus, but, if it does so, then it also reveals a version of the world, or habitus, that permits this kind of intimacy to flourish.


[1] Dorothy Burlingham, “The Fantasy of Having a Twin”, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1 (1945): 205–210.

[2] Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), 101.

[3] Rupert Sheldrake, “Foreword”, in Guy Lyon Playfair, Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection (London: Vega, 2002), p.8.

[4] The expression is from Pamela and Carolyn Spiro’s Divided Minds (New York: Griffin, 2006), a book that describes the twin’s starkly divergent mental health experiences.

[5] Acts of Thomas 11.

[6] Apophetegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum, or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1975), pp. 1f.

[7] Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, trans. by Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), p. 463.

[8] Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1964; New York, Norton, 1993), 34–35.

[9] Plato, Collected Works of Plato, 4th ed, trans Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: OUP, 1953), p.520.

[10] Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty, ed. Gavan Tredoux (1883; Everyman, 2001), p. 169.

[11] For a succinct and thorough account of twins in research, see Thomas Teo and Laura C Ball, “Twin research, Revisionism and Metahistory” History of Human Science 5 (2009): 1–23. See also David Burbridge, “Francis Galton on Twins, Heredity and Social Class” The British Journal for the History of Science 34, (2001): pp. 323–340.

[12] See Nick Brown and Mike Michael, “A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects”, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 15 (2003): 3–18.

The Significance of Twins in the Middle Ages

This post began as a paper I gave at the Annual Association for Medical Humanities Conference, University of Aberdeen, 8th – 10th July 2013. I have posted a review of the conference here.

Dangerous, difficult births
Explanations for the biological origins of twins during the Middle Ages realigned the ancient emphasis on the causal strength and quantity of male seed to include the moral behaviour of individuals, the internal environment experienced by fetuses, and the damaging effects of twin pregnancy. In a very general sense, biological explanations of twinning authored by male philosophers and theologians stressed understandings of sex and gender that gave women a much greater responsibility for the formation and fate of twins. This is partly explained by a greater focus on the female body. Gynecological tracts sought to understand how and why twins caused pregnant women such difficulty. Concerns about the dangers of multiple birth have their roots in ancient medical texts and are well documented in the long history of translations and reproductions produced in the Middle Ages; they can now be viewed as a visual record for how the phenomenon of twinning was explained and imagined in utero. Gynecological tracts were frequently illustrated, exposing the uterus by cross-section, the womb a vessel disembodied from its surrounding organism, a globular space in which the maternal relation is made wholly material. A good example of this visual as well as epistemological technique can be found in this ninth century image (Fig. 1). Reflecting the extended temporal, intertextual and international genealogy of the gynecological knowledge of the Middle Ages, this image has been adapted to illustrate a text composed sometime between the fifth and sixth century AD. It represents a means to visualise the unseen dangers associated with multiple conceptions, to focus on and isolate the presentation of different kinds of twin and higher-order multiples in the uterus.[1] As an image that shows the confluence of content, taken from many separate sources, and epistemology, that depended upon a decorative yet anatomically disembodied style of illustration, the result is curious and rather gargantuan entanglement of multiple neonates, caught, twisted and entwined together.

Fig. 6. Muscio, Gynaecia. Bibliotheque Royale de Belgique, ms. 3701, f.27r. 9th century.
Fig. 1. Muscio, Gynaecia. Bibliotheque Royale de Belgique, ms. 3701, f.27r. 9th century.

There are various intertexts for these interuterine views, the most familiar to pious northern Europeans may have been the story of Jacob and Esau: scriptural twins who are said to have ‘struggled together’ in Rebekah’s womb (Gen 25:22). The sight of one twin with a hand clasping the other’s ankle in the next image (Fig. 2) – much like how Jacob is described to have had ‘his hand took hold on Esau’s heel’ (Gen 25: 26) compounds the dramatic and foreboding sense that interuterine conflict prefigures later difficulties or struggles, especially in monotheistic cultures dominated by systems of primogeniture; the simultaneity of twin birth may cause lifelong discord. But while the struggle between Jacob and Esau foretold a greater conflict, medieval medical texts tended to stress the material and physical reasons for why a woman might experience difficulty in labour.

Fig. 7. Fig. 0.0. Eucharius Rosslin, Der Swangern Frauwen und hebammen Rosegarten, ed. Huldrych M Koelbing (1513; Zürich: Verlag Bibliophile Drucke von J Stocker, 1976), fol. 3v.
Fig. 2. Eucharius Rosslin, Der Swangern Frauwen und hebammen
Rosegarten, ed. Huldrych M Koelbing (1513; Zürich: Verlag Bibliophile Drucke von J Stocker, 1976), fol. 3v.

These fetal views, sometimes detached and circulated free from their accompanying texts, were widely distributed across Europe during thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Fig 2 was heavily influenced by those that appeared in earlier writings of Soranus, it had a profound and long-lasting influence on how medieval and early modern writers imagined twin pregnancies.[2] As Monica Green has shown, Soranus was an especially important source for Eucharius Rösslin and his Der Rosengarten (The Rose Garden, 1513). This text, Green shows, was vital for the professionalization, standardization, and internationalisation of midwifery. Der Rosengarten became a bestseller in the field, was widely disseminated when published in the early sixteenth century, and went through sixteen editions in its original form, revised into three different German versions (each of which went through multiple printings), translated into Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.[3] Rosslin’s was, in this sense, an internationalised text that addressed a global health issue. Most fundamental from our point of view was his reliance on and assistance of these globular and disembodied wombs that can be traced back to Soranus; rugged-cheeked twin homunculi, who in position and presentation carry some visual likeness of their 9th century compatriots. In effect, the twin child is motherless; every emphasis is placed on the position of the twin vis-à-vis the other twin.

But in reading these guides and manuals as a purely visual record neglects their purpose in illustrating the experience ‘difficult birth’ and the help they offer to midwives in mitigating the severe risk of such births. Immersed in this longer tradition that places twins in a category of ‘difficult births’ one fourteenth-century Hebrew writer would define the birth of twins as similar in kind to when,

the foetus is dead, or when his head is very big, or when he has two heads, or when there are / twins, or when the birth is unnatural, or when it occurs before time, or when the woman is very old, or as a result of the uterus’ diseases [etc][4]

The structural nature of this litany is telling, precisely for where twins are inserted – ‘when his head is very big, or when he has two heads, or when there are / twins, or when the birth is unnatural.’ Again, there exists taxonomic proximity between twin births and physical mutation and pathology, ultimately situating twins in the realm of sickness and physical dysfunction. Similarly, in an early fifteenth-century obstetric text known as the ‘Trotula Manuscript’ (Sloane MS 2463), the earliest obstetric work in Middle English, twins are categorized as a ‘vnkyndely’ or ‘unnatural.’[5] When delivering twins a midwife is instructed to put:

aye noon with hyr fyngers the whiles she hathe forth oon of þe children. And þan after, another, do doing þat þe moder be noȝt repressed, þe children mysfaren with all, as it fareth often tyme.

[one back again with her fingers while she brings out one of the children. And then afterward, another, so doing that the uterus is not constricted nor the children brought to grief, as often happens.[6]

The advice given here provides a small insight into the challenges faced by mothers and midwives. Elsewhere in this handbook a constricted uterus is said to cause blood retention, the build up of ‘corrupt and venomous uterine humors,’ feverishness and fainting.[7] The risks are not only multiple but predictably malignant, unless difficult interventions are not made. The humoural basis of health, which stressed the balance of composite corporeal humours, dominated Northern European medical thought throughout the Middle Ages and early modern periods. Medieval writers taught how well-being was guided by a balance of four humours: colic, phlegm, black bile and blood. To remain healthy was to keep these humours in equilibrium and a temporary imbalance could lead an individual to experience sickness or disease. Giving added visual support to this traffic between twins and sickness, the image below (Fig. 3) shows a figura infirmitatum, a pedagogical device used by teachers of anatomy and medicine to present the locations of different illnesses and diseases said to afflict the human body. Dating from the early fourteenth century, it shows a woman’s body displayed with its many possible pathologies: tumours, swollen feet, and skin conditions. Perhaps the more unexpected of these appears at each side of her abdomen, two isolated twins in separate pockets.

Fig. 2. Figura infirmitatum. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Lat. 11229 fol.31r
Fig. 3. Figura infirmitatum. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Lat. 11229 fol.31r

The emphasis on balance, proportion, and equilibrium was influential in determining how twins were generated. The reason why twins in this image are far apart may lie in the theory that twins were caused by the divided structure of a woman’s uterus.[8] This not only has a bearing over how twins relate to the overall health of the mother but also how the birth of twins reflected her sexuality, morality, and thus her social reputation.

Sex and desire
For Galen, the influential Greek philosopher and doctor, a woman’s uterus has two sinuses in proportion to the number of children she is capable of conceiving. His argument was based on the belief that all animals give birth to the number of offspring they are able to rear: ‘just as the whole body is double with right and left sides, so too there is one sinus placed in the right part of the uterus and another in the left […] all other animals too always bear the same number of foetuses as they have teats.’[9] Hence, Galen believed that the uterus has two cells, and that each side was responsible for forming the gender of a child with females developing to the left and males to the right. In the writings of Salernus this ancient belief was extended to seven chambers, to account for multiple births of higher numbers, and remained popular well into the late Middle Ages.[10] The doctrine of the seven-cell uterus in its completed form was adopted by anatomists at Salerno, the prominent anatomists of Bologna, and those that visited these centers of anatomical thought such as Michael Scotus (1175 – c. 1232) and Mondino de Luzzi (c. 1270 – 1326).[11] A mechanistic theory was established that could explain the different kinds of birth according to the foetuses’ place of development, with three chambers on the left for females and three to right for the males, and another in the middle of the others where it was through that hermaphrodites were formed.

Debates about how twins were generated as a distinct capacity of a woman’s anatomy not only cast the biological responsibility of twinning upon her ‘natural’ capacities but it also made the origin of twins a woman’s secret. It is not surprising, then, to find beliefs about the seven-celled uterus, whose origins can be placed in the Galenic tradition but whose influence developed over subsequent centuries, appear in popular court poetry. This extract from a fourteenth-century poem, translated from French by Hugh of Caumpeden in the 1530s, sees the literary and philosophical converge in a single text:

May any woman bear mo
Children in her at once but two?
A woman may ber kindly
Seven at once in her body,
For the matrice of woman,
If that thou understand can,
Hath seven chambers and no mo,
And each is departed other fro,
And she may have in each of tho
A child and with seven go,
If God’s will be first thereto
And the kind of woman also.
If hot of kind be the woman
And great liking hath to man,
One chamber or two or three
Of thilike that in matrice be
Of great will open there again
When that a man hath by her lain.[12]

Hugh’s text describes the anatomical structure of a woman and the dynamic relationship with her ‘great liking’, her sexual appetite. Adopting the language of Galen, Hugh understands women to be naturally colder than their male counterparts. To be ‘hot of kind’ made higher order multiples more likely and twins, then, a minimal measure of enlarged sexual and reproductive potential.

The fusion of ancient natural philosophy and medieval moralism is especially evident in the writings of the thirteenth-century theologian, Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus, c. 1200 – 1280). Though Albert did not fully endorse the Hippocratic and Galenic view that the shape of a woman’s uterus was the cause of twins, [13] he did regard multiple birth as a sign that humans were liminal figures whose sexual appetites could encourage the generation of multiples: ‘the human is an animal lying midway, as it were, between two genus, one of which naturally generates many young and the other which naturally generates one young.’[14] As a consequence, twins are drawn into debates not only about the animality of humans but also included in more general discussions about the meaning and significance of mutants and monsters. So, in Book 18 of On Animals, his commentary on Aristotle, we find a monk like Albert suggesting that the ‘cause of too many or too few members being one and the same.’[15] Albert also agrees with Aristotle’s theory of seed but recognises that men and women make an equal contribution to the formation of a fertilised embryo (‘the male produces excessive sperm and the female with whom he copulates should overbound as well with a great deal of superfluity’[16]). Hence, for Albert, twins exist on a cline of the monstrous that links multiple births to physical deformation and sexual ambiguity: ‘if the power in one is overcome and overcomes in the others, then a hermaphrodite will be generated.’[17] Next to these Aristotelian ideas, however, which are largely material and teleological in nature, Albert added the vagaries of a woman’s sexual pleasure, which he also thought to be equally and problematically given to excess.

The cause of Albert’s revision of Aristotle may reflect lie in the sources that were not of Greek or Roman origin. J. M. Thijssen argues that his writings bear a strong resemblance to those of the tenth-century Persian philosopher and medic, Avicenna (980 – 1037), particularly where he mimics Avicenna’s understanding of twin birth and its departure from more mechanistic theories. Via Avicenna, Albert stresses the emotional content of human reproduction and the way that the pleasure and heat that women may feel during sexual intercourse makes a significant contribution to the generation of twins. This pleasure is said to occur in three stages, at the moment of female ejaculation (eiectiones spermatis), the movements of the vulva when it draws in semen (Mootus orificii matricis in sugendo), and the movements of the womb throughout pregnancy.[18] The various kinds of pleasure women may feel during and after intercourse, especially where it may encourage movement, thought Albert, served to harness and redistribute the overabundant quantity and position of sperma, causing it to divide and settle into the different parts of her uterus to generate twins. Such twin-making pleasures reinforced Albert’s belief that women were, when compared to other animals, sexually insatiable; indeed, the generation of twins could be used as evidence for their sexual appetites.
Above all other animals, Albert claims, female humans and mares are most likely to superfecundate; to conceive in separate but sequential copulations and generate twins in a single gestation. Whereas Aristotle presented superfecundation as a rare event and could allude to the mythology familiar to his interlocutors, Albert makes it an active extension of female desire because she ‘desire[s] copulation more than do others. It is the toughness of their flesh which creates (or rather gives indication of) this appetite. All animals which have tough flesh have full flesh because blood does not flow out from them and the last food is poured into the members. They thus desire a great deal of copulation, especially woman and the mare.’[19] It is not simply the case that women can emit a material excess of ‘spermatic humor,’ they are naturally predisposed towards a expressing an increased sexual appetite. Twins, as the gendered by-product of an immanent bodily and moral predisposition, were taken as evidence of how material and ethical taxonomies could coalesce in the natural world.

Assessments of twins that stress the sexual behaviour of women cast the ‘issue’ of twins – both as a process that resulted in birth and as figures of scholastic debate – into a wide variety ancillary debates: the anatomical composition of human sexuality and gender; the domestic roles of each gender; ideals about the size and composition of populations; the paths for Christian salvation. For women, the bearing of children during this era was seen as both a punishment for the original sin of Eve and a means to attain salvation.[20] So, a contemporary Dominican to Albert, Nicholas of Gorran (1232 ­– 1295), argued that a woman’s source of Christian salvation was to ‘generate children continually until her death.’[21] While such attitudes towards childbirth do not tend to mention twins explicitly, moral economies that determined gender roles on the basis of reproductive capacity may have encouraged parents of twins to view their offspring as an extension of their religious duty. On this I can only speculate. Where twins are mentioned in Albert’s writings we find him taking a more cautious view – both towards multiple births and towards human population growth more generally. He acknowledges that salvation-through-reproduction, if pursued, harboured the threat of overproduction. We see then, in this illuminated manuscript of de Animalibus, a continuum; from single pregnancy at the top, to twin pregnancy directly below, to the woman at the bottom corner with quintuplets, to the figure in the right margin, whose gargantuan reproductive capacities render her pregnant with 28 foetuses. Though his text stresses that such outcomes are unlikely, the causal mechanism and the depth of female desire described within makes this threat possible

From Albertus Magnus, de Animalibus, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, Lat. 16169, fol. 134r.
Fig 4. From Albertus Magnus, de Animalibus, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, Lat. 16169, fol. 134r.

The agency that Albert adds to his traditional Aristotelian view, particularly his stress on the sexual pleasures of women, makes twins a threatening sign of humankind’s fallen animality, imperfection, and sinfulness. This is why twins were absorbed into categories of monstrosity that, following Aristotle, placed them alongside those born with extra digits, limbs, and so on. But, as Robert Olsen and Karen Olsen observe, medieval commentators looked to account between physical and moral monstrosities: ‘what constitutes a monster involved more than just physical appearance (‘physical monstrosity’); instead, physical differences were also associated with aberrant ethical behaviour (‘moral monstrosity’) and exotic ethnical customs.’[22] Twins, as a consequence, were recruited into scholastic debates as evidence and as omen; proof of parental and moral error.
Suggested in Fig.4 is the greater anxiety that multiple birth marks a descent into monstrous abundance and the generation of an unsupportable multitude, an imbalance at the level of the collective to match that of the individual. Albert is a surprising advocate of abortion as a means of controlling population levels: ‘he who strikes a pregnant woman [in a way] which brings about abortion of a not yet formed foetus, that is, [not yet] born [sic], should not be guilty of homicides.’[23] From a broader perspective, we can only guess at how high mortality rates were both for mothers of multiple birth and their offspring. Latin writers were unequivocal on this matter, ‘when twins are born,’ writes Pliny the Elder (23 – 79AD), ‘it is rare for the mother or more than one baby to live.’[24] It was even more risky to have twins of mixed sex, with the female viewed as more vulnerable and more likely to suffer and die.[25] As Robert Wood argues in Death Before Birth, infant and early-neonatal mortality rates, as well as the frequency of still- or ‘deadborn’ children were significantly higher than they are today. Despite the great problems associated with calculating mortality rates for periods when methods of record keeping and standards of categorisation were both inconsistent and incomplete,Woods goes to great lengths to substantiate his claim that singleborn infant and maternal death rates were at least three times higher prior to 1550.[26] From this we return to where this inquiry began – difficulty and mortality. Twin pregnancies, with their added risk of a great range of developmental, nutritional and obstetric risks, as well as low birth weight and increased rates of premature delivery, were considered to be even more hazardous; having and being twins in this period was fraught with both moral and mortal risk, permitting those that sought to categorise and measure those risks to use the birth of twins as emblematic bodies of evidence.

Adultery and exposure
Suppose that you found yourself in a rare minority who, having run the gauntlet of twin delivery, its associations with sickness and monstrosity, manage to survive and see your children live. How did society view you as a mother of twins? What status was given to or adopted by twins? Here the historical record is scant and the information available compromised by the genre or intention of the work. What we do have are an enormous number of twins in folk tales and ballads, court poetry and prose. To what extent we should take this imaginative literature as a form of historical documentation is fraught with problems that are familiar to literary and cultural historians. These literatures are complex objects serving multiple purposes, the least of which may be to hold up a simple, mimetic, documentary relationship with the social affairs they express. Leaving aside the matter of whether or not medieval literature’s representations of twins reflect the beliefs of those that wrote, read or listened to them, the overall patterns and repetitions are instructive for the way they corroborate certain historic attitudes or atmospheres that were explored in earlier parts of this chapter. For the principle treatment of twins in this literature is of exposure; the public manifestation of hidden or forbidden acts. Hence, it is rare for the birth of twins in these stories to provide a simple occasion for celebration. Instead, twin birth is again the trigger for moral scrutiny and a means by which narratives can afford opportunities to expose the proper conduct of individuals.

The birth of twins in the literary art of the Middle Ages frequently marks an opportunity for one woman to accuse another of adultery and thus the twins as illegitimate. Erik Kooper has analysed twenty European stories, many of which were translated, redacted and adapted, and he divided these according to the way in which twinship is represented.[27] ‘If one thing becomes clear from this kind of classification,’ Kooper concludes, ‘is that multiple births do indeed lead to numerous kinds of disaster, both for the mother and for the children.’[28] Of the twenty or so he lists, only four of these stories leave mother or child protagonists untainted by accusations of adultery or monstrous birth. In stories that are free of these kinds of accusation, like the late twelfth-century French story Aiol whose royal twins are born in a prison and later exposed, twins are by no means free of other kinds of peril. Similarly, in the early fifteenth-century romance, Sir Torrent of Portyngale, the eponymous hero is separated from his twin sons without negative judgement being attached to the phenomenon of twinning, but that does not mean that its twin protagonists are straightforwardly celebrated either. The stories benefit from the narrative pathos and closure forged through the eventual reunion of parents children: extending and complicating the romance drama of ‘setting out’; incorporating, in both senses, multiple protagonists. These twin stories, however, form a minority. Many others involve an accusation of adultery and/or animal birth, the threat of such accusations, and the retribution served by the religious and civic orders that these accusations threaten to disrupt.

One of the most famous narratives in which the mother of twins is accused of adultery is found in Marie de France’s short romance, Lai Le Fresne.[29] It is one of Marie’s shortest lays, written in French some time in the late twelfth century, and it bares close similarities to ballads such as ‘The Man With Two Wives’ and ‘Fair Annie.’[30] Marie’s story begins with the birth of twin sons to one noble woman. A jealous neighbour claims that the twins are not the sons of her husband but that the noble woman has, in fact, had sex with two men:

Ich have wonder, thou messanger,
Who was thi lordes conseiler,
To teche him about to send
And telle schame in ich an ende,
That his wiif hath to childer ybore.
Wele may ich man wite therfore
That tuay men hir han hadde in bour;
That is hir bothe deshonour. (65–72).[31]

The poem matches contemporary theses advanced by natural philosophers and theologians, such as Albert, who argued that superfecundation, female sexual proclivity, and the generation of twins were all entwined. Note that in Marie’s story the twins are treated as the sole evidence of an adulterous act: it is not supplemented by any other kind of visual, verbal or written proof. Shortly after making this accusation the nameless woman who accuses her neighbour then conceives twin daughters of her own; she is therefore incriminated by her earlier accusation. Not only does this disrupt the moral polarity between accused and accuser, it also contravenes the major conventions of romantic literatures, epitomised by figures such as Guenevere and Iseut, which tended to amplify acts of adultery with threats of infertility.[32] In a complex way, the issue of twins as a result of an adulterous union compromises the gendered, political, religious, and literary conventions of the period; its narrative impact is to suspend a damaging doubt over who is the rightful father and legitimate heir.

Multiple birth – a taboo that inspires accusation, punishment, and abandonment – also seems to displace the incest taboo that frequently motivates infant exposure in stories about male foundlings.[33] Hence, the accusing noble woman in Marie’s lai, now pregnant with her own twins, seeks to protect herself and the reputation of her offspring. First she considers killing one of her daughters – a reflection of how exposure was a response to unwanted births during this period[34] – but then gives one infant child to a servant who takes and hangs it in an ash tree, wrapped in an expensive cloth and with her mother’s ring. She leaves the child in the grounds of a convent and it is by this ash tree, le frêne in Old French and frein in Middle English. Named after the tree in which she was found, Frein is raised and educated by the abbess’ niece and later falls in love with a wealthy knight called Guroun. But the knight is persuaded to marry someone rich and have legitimate children. Without realising the family connection the knight decides to marry Frein’s twin sister.[35] Frein, though sorry for her loss, graciously adorns the matrimonial bed with the cloth in which she was abandoned and, when this garment is recognised by her mother, she also produces the ring and explains how they came into her possession. Her sister’s marriage is quickly annulled and Frein marries Guroun. Frein’s twin is married to a suitably wealthy knight and, despite the years that have passed, order is restored.
To the turbulent plot of Frein we can add Octavian, a popular family romance throughout the fourteenth century, initially composed in Old French and then abbreviated into two Middle English versions.[36] In this story, the Emperor Octavian and his Empress seek an heir – there are concerns that the Empress may be infertile – and so they build an abbey in the hope that their piety may bring them divine favour. Their prayers are answered in the shape of twin sons. In this respect, their children have divine connotations; a sign of divine intervention and a resolution to anxieties surrounding royal succession: ‘An abbaye than he gerte wyrke so / And sone he gatt knave chidire two, / Als it was Goddis will’ (82–84),[37] In a way which corroborates the notion that twin births are difficult and painful, the text stresses the physical exertion and exhaustion of twin delivery: ‘Full grete scho wexe with paynnes sore’ (86). Further difficulties arise when the Empress’ mother-in-law claims that the twins fathered by the cook’s assistant and the Emperor exiles wife and children. The family undergo further separation when each twin is abducted, the first by an ape and the second by a lioness. After further abductions, adoptions, giant killings, battles and romantic conquests, displays of taste and indications of their innate nobility, the adult children are restored to their parents. At the point of reunion, ‘full joye there was also / At the metyng of the brethir two’ (1898–1899). In a fashion that seems to stress the dramatic capacity of twinning rather than any intrinsic or absolute quality unique to twins, their ‘true’ identity is revealed by their actions; through their valour at court and on the battlefield. The deceitful mother-in-law, now threatened by her husband to death by fire, takes her own life. According to literary convention, order and peace are restored.

As much as it is important to stress a continuity between works of natural philosophy, medicine, and literature in the Middle Ages, which all in their different ways highlight how twinship was viewed as a fundamentally disruptive event – a woman’s natural and spiritual burden – it is also essential to identify the drama and entertainment afforded by the birth of twins; twins are catalysts for demarcating the orderly from the disorderly, the usual and the unusual, the desired and the undesirable. This optical and instrumental quality of twinning is not specific to this period of human history. Though what is viewed, calibrated, or measured may change, the inclusion of twins as evidence for the orders and aberrations of nature is a persistent aspect of human self-assessment. The category of ‘twin’ is unusual, therefore, since it is not simply defined by authorities who build upon one another’s knowledge in an accumulative fashion, but twins gain their transhistorical meaning from the many different and divergent kinds of authority that is achieved using their bodies.

[1] Muscio’s Gynaecia, an interpretation of Soranus’ Gynecology, trans. Owsei Temkin (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), p. xlv. The specific details of Muscio’s life are unknown but it is generally held that he translated the text in North Africa in the fifth or sixth century. See Monica H. Green, ‘From ‘Diseases of Women’ to “Secrets of Women”: The Transformation of Gynecological Literature in the Later Middle Ages,’ Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 30 (2000): p. 8 [pp. 5–40].

[2] See Monica H Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3] Monica H. Green, ‘The Sources of Eucharius Rösslin’s ‘Rosegarden for Pregnant Women and Midwives’ (1513),’ Medical History 53(2) (2009): 167–192.

[4] Anon, ‘On Difficulties of Birth,’ translated by Ron Barkai, Paris Bibliotheque Nationale, Ms. heb. 1120 ff. 66v.-67r.

[5]Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health: The First Gynecological Handbook, edited by Beryl Rowland (Croom Helm: London, 1981), p. 133

[6]Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health, p. 134, p. 135.

[7] Ibid, p. 87.

[8] See Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), p. 35

[9] Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body: De usu partium, 2 vols, translated by Margret Tallmadge May (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), II. 625.

[10] Fridolf Kudlien, ‘The Seven Cells of the Uterus: The Doctrine and its Roots,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine 39:5 (1965), 415–423

[11] Edward Reichman, ‘Anatomy and the Doctrine of the Seven-Chamber Uterus in Rabbinic Literature,’ Hakirah 9 (2010), p. 249. [245-265]

[12] Hugh of Caumpeden, Landsdowne mss 793, British Museum, London.

[13] Albertus Magnus, On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, vol 2, translated and annotated by Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Ireven Michael Resnick (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), II.1309; 18.58.

[14] Albertus Magnus, On Animals, II.1311; 18.63

[15] Albertus Magnus, On Animals, II.1314; 18; 69.

[16] Ibid, I.1311; 18.62.

[17] Ibid, II.1313; 18.66.

[18] Ibid, I.825; 9.132–133. Here I have also been guided by the summary offered by J. M. Thijssen in his ‘Twins as Monsters: Albertus Magnus’s Theory of the Generation of Twins and its Philosophical Context , Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 61, 2 (1987), 246. [pp. 237–246].

[19] Albert, On Animals, II.1315; 18.71. II.1316.18.72

[20] See Angela M. Lucas, Women in the Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage and Letters (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), p.18.

[21] Quoted in R.C. Finucane, The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles (London: Macmillan, 1997), p. 18.

[22] K. E. Olsen and L. A J. R. Houwen, ‘Introduction’, Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), p. 8 [pp.1–22].

[23] Quoted in Peter Biller, the Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p. 368.

[24] Pliny the Elder, Natural History: Book 7, translated by Mary Beagon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 67.

[25] Indeed, so common was the death of at least one twin during pregnancy, that the ancient Romans named ‘Vopiscus’ the surviving twin. See Pliny the Elder, Natural History, p. 69.

[26] Robert Wood, Death before Birth: Fetal Health and Mortality in Historical Perspective (Oxford: OUP, 2009), pp. 96–98.

[27] See Erik Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster: Twins in Medieval Literature,’ in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly

  1. Douglas Kelly, Keith Busby and Norris J. Lacy (Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1994), pp. 256–260.

[28] Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster,’ p. 260.

[29] The extent to which Marie de France’s Lai le Freine is a ‘romance’ in a generic and critical sense is discussed by Elizabeth Archibald, see ‘Lai le Freine: The Female Foundling and the Problem of Romance Genre,’ in The Spriit of Medieval English Popular Romance, edited by Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert (Harlow: Longman, 2000), pp. 39–55.

[30] See Francis J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, vol.2 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1883-86), II.63–83, and Erik Kooper, ‘Multiple Births and Multiple Disaster: Twins in Medieval Literature,’ pp. 253–270.

[31] All quotes from Marie de France, Lay le Freine, in The Middle English Breton Lays, Edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), pp. 65–74.

[32] See Peggy McCraken, ‘The Body Politic and the Queen’s Adulterous Body in French Romance,’ in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, edited by Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1993), pp. 29–64.

[33] See Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[34] John Boswell details the history of child abandonment in the Middle Ages; he writes that ‘between 1195 and 1295 at least thirteen different councils in England alone passed legislation directly or indirectly bearing on the abandonment of children’, see The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 322.

[35] On medieval theories of resemblance see Paul Vincent Rockwell, ‘Twin Mysteries: Ceci n’est pas un Fresne,’ in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly, pp. 487–504.

[36] See Harriet Hudson, ‘Octavian: Introduction,’ in Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tyramour, edited by Harriet Hudson (Kalamazoo, MI: The Consortium for the Teaching of Middle Ages, 1996), pp. 45–52.

[37] Citations are to Harriet Hudson’s edition of the Northern, Thornton version, Four Middle English Romances, pp. 53–114. Line numbers are given in parentheses in the main body of the text.