Monday, February 20, 2017



L. M. Boyd’s column, Sept 2 1988
What follows will be an excerpt from the book I'm working on.

I've been writing about oysters for years now, but have published on them just once, in Steve Mentz's Oceanic New York. I made some catastrophic errors in that essay -- the Marquess of Cavendish to whom Descartes wrote about oysters is not, of course, Margaret Cavendish, and only my understandable, irrepressible desire for the perfect intellectual slash fiction made it so -- but the volume, as a whole, is otherwise absolutely worth reading.

I'm now, here in the second half of my sabbatical, creaking my way to a submittable version of Book2, and am naturally enough, I started the final writing at the end. Here's a section from the ending bit of Chapter 4, on Oysters, with just enough about Gelli's La Circe to draw you in. The whole of the chapter's end is here; along with a bit on minimal animals; on oysters and agency; and, of course, the Anglo-Saxon oyster riddle.

In 1549, another talking oyster appears, in Giovanni Battista Gelli’s La Circe, his adaptation of Plutarch’s fourth-century Gryllus, or “Grunter.” Plutarch’s work features Ulysses and one of his men, since transformed by the sorceress Circe into a pig, debating the respective advantages of humanity and porcinity. The pig wins. Plutarch’s work survives in just one, fragmentary manuscript, while Gelli’s work, lucky enough to have been produced near the dawn of the print era, was quickly translated from Italian into Latin and the major European languages, and perhaps even twice adapted for the stage.[1] It also surpasses Plutarch in its dedication to the conceit, for in Gelli, not just the one, but ten animals out-argue Ulysses, until at last he convinces an elephant, and only the elephant, to let itself once more become human. As the elephant had once been a philosopher, its final decision may mean that none but it is sufficiently ratiocinative to recognize the value of reclaiming its human privilege; furthermore, this conclusion, with the elephant presumably ranking as the most august of this beastly collective – which includes an oyster, mole, snake, hare, goat, doe, lion, horse, dog, and cow – may at least hint that the whole work follows a neo-Platonic trajectory, in which all-too-practical animality gradually ascends towards abstractive humanity. Alternately, if we recall that Gelli himself, despite his growing fame among Florentine philosophers, refused to abandon his own trade as a cobbler,[2] the conclusion may be read as a satire: the elephant’s susceptibility to the allures of logos may suggest that only a philosopher, and – given the doe’s earlier complaints about the wretched condition of human women – only a male philosopher at that, would be foolish enough to give up on a happier, animal existence. All the other animals outmaneuver the famously clever Ulysses, because the human world has no allurements for them.[3] Laurie Shannon rightly insists, then, that the text is not concerned with the animal possession of reason, nor even of the superiority of reason to irrationality, but rather with “whether a good life entails duly cherishing what is necessary or striving to attain what is not.”[4] The elephant may furnish the work’s final answer to this question, but it perhaps is not the conclusive one.

The first and presumably the lowest-ranking of Ulysses’s refusnik animals is, of course, an oyster, a former fishmonger that prefers its easy, littoral life to market drudgery and maritime dangers. The oyster argues that Nature has made them “better and more noble than”[5] humans. After all, she has given oysters their own home, which conveniently doubles as their clothing, and has so made them that food comes to them without any struggle. The oyster takes this practical approach not because of its unfamiliarity with maieutics: having eavesdropped on philosophers back when it sold fish in Athens, the oyster observes that if the end is nobler than the means, then—itself answering the implicit question—Ulysses must surely admit that the earth is nobler than humans since the earth “at last devours you all.”[6] But the offhanded contempt with which it deploys this Socratic paradox suggests both that it recognizes that philosophy is a mere game—notably, it doesn’t extend this argument to its own material existence—and that it thinks the only argument really worth making is a simple description of the comforts of its own oystery life. Against all this, Ulysses can argue only that humans can do things, but has no answer to the oyster’s insistence that humans have to do things. For the oyster, as Shannon observes, “need and pleasure are not opposing modes of being”:[7] felicitous in being what it is, the oyster need not strive for satisfaction, nor for anything else, because it itself is exactly enough and needs nothing but to be.

Then the oyster declares the conversation over (“"I will shut up my little house and take my repose without a single thought"[8]) and the frustrated Ulysses seeks out his next opponent, an equally wily mole. However, just praising the oyster for its victory, or Gelli for his skills as a parodist, would miss the key element of this exchange, which is Gelli’s having the oyster argue as an oyster. It is not that the oyster is just happy, nor just that the “originary perfection” of the oyster lacks the lack that drives humans to mostly noble, sometimes pathetic, attempts to make themselves a better world,[9] nor just that oysters can be defined entirely by their immanent being, and so need not wander uncertain like humans, lost in their own definitional openness.[10] Of course, the contentment of Gelli’s animals in their animal condition is evidence enough of his participation in the long tradition that held all beasts to be innocently happy. But before that argument arrives, Gelli first has the oyster speak from its own particular place, which means showing that whatever its happiness, it is subject to the inescapable vulnerability of anything that exists. For the oyster first agrees to speak only on the condition that Ulysses keep watch during the debate, so that "those confounded crabs shall not throw a stone between my two shells...[to] make a meal of me.”[11] This tidbit of natural history is virtually proverbial in early modern oyster writing. Here, for example, is a Nicholas Breton’s “Dream of an Oister and a Crab”:
Upon the shore neare to the Sea, an Oister gaping wide, Lay looking for a little food to come in with the Tide: But hard by lay a crauling Crab, who watcht his time before, And threw a stone betweene the shels, that they could shut no more. The Oister cride, Ho neighbours, theeues: but ere the neighbours came, The Crab had murtherd the poore fish, and fed upon the same. When wondering that such craft did live with creatures in the deepe, With troubling of my braines withall, I wakt out of my sleepe.[12]
The crafty crab, or sometimes a crafty crow, always succeed against the oyster, as if the oyster’s shell is just an invitation to imagine any shelter’s ultimate inadequacy. Similarly, though the oyster of the Anglo-Saxon riddle talks, it does so mainly to protest about being plucked from the nurturing sea. In all these, as even with Lewis Carroll’s poem, the speaking oyster is less evidence of an (imitative) rational power than of their inescapable vulnerability. What all these works first or even mainly give voice to, then, is a normally unheard or unvoicable request not to be injured. If this is a recognition of the oyster’s “agency,” it is a recognition of an agency that speaks mainly to say that it is far less agential than it would prefer to be, that it is as much thwarted as enabled by its life.

This is probably the most sensible way to represent a talking oyster. Of course, no one who pays them any attention can deny that oysters do do things: they are prodigious cleaners of filthy water, and if New York City, for example, had still had its oyster beds, Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t have hit quite as hard. Nor are oysters entirely helpless: they have shells, and their shells give them some definition and protection, even if crabs always manage to find some way in. But the main point of the speaking, plaintive oyster may be the recognition of what has to exist, first of all, if there is to be any agency at all: agency requires an existence distinct in time and space from other things – no action is possible otherwise, because action needs to act on some other thing and from somewhere – and therefore the agent must have a location and some particular when, which means that its agency is always accompanied by its limits, its inabilities, its termination. It all goes further than this, however, because the oyster’s only intention, if it can even be called that, is that of their sensus solus itself, which establishes the relation towards the self, combined with a helpless inability to choose to do anything about it. That is, the oyster makes it clear that to be at all, even if all that the thing does is be, means being constrained by and vulnerable to nonexistence. For a living thing, this means, especially, that death awaits, whether it knows it or not.

This unwitting helplessness is on the other side even of what Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am called the “non-pouvoir au cœur du pouvoir” [“nonpower at the heart of power”].[13] Derrida arrived at this phrase after observing that, for Jeremy Bentham, the question of animal rights did not depend on whether they could use language or reason, but whether they could suffer. Derrida’s favored animal to think with in this essay was a cat; and cats demonstrably can suffer, so long as we are willing to admit that their cries are not simply the sound of clockwork breaking. However, oysters are not only mute, but also unaware, without any movement or sense of other things, without any ability, short of poetry, to make their distress known. To make vitality synonymous with agency and awareness is to forget this nonpower. It is also a mistake that threatens to grant protections only to those things that can do things, or react to things, or even to experience things, while forgetting that things also need protection because of what they cannot do, and may especially need protection against threats they themselves cannot recognize or even be aware that they are experiencing. For depending on which modern scientific studies of oysters and pain are embraced, the oyster may even lack the sensus solus prescientific natural history granted them. They may have nothing but their lives. If the social problem of pain is not knowing if others are really suffering,[14] then this problem is a subjective one, more like numbness than the problem of other minds. It is a problem that requires that the question of “what it is like to be,” for example, an octopus, tick, or oyster,[15] be answered not only with species specific phenomenology, but also with accounts of sensory incapacities, whether innate or temporary. In summarizing Jakob von Uexküll’s famous experiments on the environment [umwelt] of ticks, Agamben declares that if the tick’s sensory capacities are oriented exclusively to an awareness of mammalian blood, “the tick is this relationship,” living “only in it and for it.”[16] But surely it is a mistake to declare that the tick’s existence can be exhausted by what it believes itself to know (or, more accurately, what we can infer about what we believe it to know). Agamben’s declaration is too experiential. The tick’s unwittingness also has to matter: a complete phenomenological account of the tick means attending to all it does not experience. This is not a problem exclusive to invertebrates, of course. Cows too may be said to have this same impediment, particularly in slaughterhouses designed by Temple Grandin. By thinking like a cow, Temple Grandin “remove[s] the things that make [cows] stop moving forward: in a good facility cows walk toward slaughter as if toward a milking parlor.”[17] They advance fearlessly, not because they have become stoics, but because they don’t know what’s ahead. Surely this is a strange kind of “humane” slaughter: to remove only the fear and not the killing; to increase the ignorance, and call that a job well done. Surely there’s more worth protecting than just scared cows, and more than just the cow that has a moment to experience the pain of its own death. As one might expect, these insights can be taken even further. If death is inassimilable to the experience of the thing that dies—whether we call this experience “consciousness” or “sensus solus” or some term graced with even less grandeur—then the ultimate threat itself is always on the other side of our knowledge.[18] We can never get away from it, as we already know, but neither can we ever really know it. In sum, if we want to go further than suffering in looking for a paradoxical noncapacity that lies at the “heart of power,” we might seek it here, in the unexperiencable, uncognizable end, what we might call a non-awareness at the heart of existence.

[and so on!]

[1] One early translation, absolutely faithful in its treatment of the oyster episode, is Denis Sauvage, trans., La Circe de M. Giovan-Baptista Gello [sic] (Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1550). The two dramatic adaptations may be based on Gelli, or more directly on Plutarch, via “Que les bestes brutes usent de la raison,” in Les Oeuvres morales et meslees, trans. Jacques Amyot, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Paris: Michel de Vascosan, 1572), 270–74, which first made this text generally available in Western Europe (note, however, that the final entry in Machiavelli’s eight-part satire of 1517, “L’asino” [The Donkey], is also an adaptation of “Gryllus”). The two French plays each omit the oyster: from 1661, Antoine-Jacob Montfleury, “Les Bestes raisonnables,” in Les Contemporains de Molière, ed. Victor Fournel, vol. 1, 3 vols. (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1863), 223–38, which features one scene in which a man, once a lion, shouts in rage (“Qui diable m'a rendu ma première figure!”) when returned for a while to its human form, and then in effect answers Wittgenstein’s observation (“If a lion could speak &c”) by railing at Ulysses about human cruelty and treachery. The next, from 1718, is Marc-Antoine Legrand and Louis Fuzelier, “Les Animaux raisonnables,” in Le Théâtre de La Foire, ed. Alain René Le Sage and Carolet d’Orneval, vol. 3, 10 vols. (Paris: Etienne Ganeau, 1721), 1–35. Though lacking a talking oyster, this play does have a singing dolphin, which claims to be happy to meet Ulysses once more after vainly searching for him among “deux cens Huîtres” (200 oysters). The lion of Jean de la Fontaine's fable 'Les Compagnons d'Ulysse' is one of several animals, none oysters, that refuses to become human again (here I am a king, it says; were I a human, I would once more be but a simple soldier). For guidance in finding this material, Ibid., 35–36., which is preceded by a detailed paraphrase of the Gelli; Derek Connon, “Animal Instincts: Homer, Plutarch, and La Fontaine Go to the Fair,” in French Seventeenth-Century Literature: Influences and Transformations: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Gossip, ed. Jane Southwood and Bernard Bourque (Berne: Peter Lang, 2009), 75–90 (which traces the route from Plutarch to the French adaptations); and Marc Escola and Sophie Rabau, “Bibliothèque de Circé,” text, Fabula, Atelier littéraire, (April 18, 2010) (particularly good on nineteenth- and twentieth-century reimaginings of Circe).

[2] Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 110–11.

[3] For the deceit and storytelling of Circe and the animals, see especially the reading of Plutarch in Marina Warner, Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 272–83.

[4] Laurie Shannon, The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 162.

[5] Giovanni Battista Gelli, The Circe, trans. Thomas Brown and Robert Adams (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 13.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Shannon, The Accommodated Animal, 160.

[8] Gelli, Circe, 19–20.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (Fordham University Press, 2008), 122, summarizing Lacan.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 30, on Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as “manlike,” “constitutively nonhuman,” an “ironic” anthropological “machine” the preserves the fundamental human capacity to recreate itself as anything.

[11] Gelli, Circe, 12.

[12] From his 1622 Strange Newes out of Divers Countries, in Nicholas Breton, The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton: Prose, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1879), 11.

[13] Jacques Derrida, “L’Animal que donc je suis (à suivre),” in L’Animal autobiographique: Autour de Jacques Derrida, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (Paris: Galilée, 1999), 278. Derrida, Animal That Therefore, 28.

[14] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[15] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 435–50.

[16] Agamben, The Open, 47. For Agamben’s source, Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 50–52.

[17] This is the summary of Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Scribner, 2005) from Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 19. Fudge’s essay, which attends to humans and disability, as well as the history of the size and treatment of livestock, is an exceptionally good phenomenological/social-historical engagement with animals.

[18] Cary Wolfe, “Exposures,” in Stanley Cavell et al., Philosophy & Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 21, “For Derrida…we never have an idea of what death is for us—indeed, death is precisely that which can never be for us—and if we did, then the ethical relation to the other would be immediately foreclosed.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Stone has been awarded the René Wellek prize

by J J Cohen

Hello everyone, just wanted to share on a platform other than Facebook some good news I received last week. My book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman has been awarded the René Wellek prize for best book in comparative literature. The announcement was wholly unexpected (I had no idea my book had been nominated) and I am honored beyond words. The prize is to be awarded at the ACLA Annual Meeting in Utrecht this summer but because of travel plans I made quite a while ago I will actually be flying home from a stay in the UK on the day I might have been going to the Netherlands.

The Wellek Prize is shared this year between between Stone and Viet Thanh Nguyen's superb book about war and memory, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. I like the small confluence in these two choices to ponder openly what and when comparative literature means. The latest (and must-read) issue of PMLA has a special cluster on "Literature in the World" edited by Simon Gikandi, and his introduction "Another Way in the World" offers a powerful meditation on the founding of comparative literature by exiles to the US who wanted to find a way to frame and preserve a "western tradition" -- a thing, really, that escapes the moment it is articulated. Gikandi speaks of Auerbach and Wellek sympathetically, while also making clear what limited their vision of what "tradition" designates. In my own work I have tried to find -- among other things -- the recalcitrant and not to be assimilated Jewish stories within what is often passed off as a monolithically Christian middle ages, and to explore how these narratives resonate with the more-than-human world, which likewise continues to frame and impress the tales that are told in and about the medieval. Well, I wrote Stone not knowing if it would ever find an audience and it is kind of nice to find it being read -- and being placed in the company of books like Nguyen's, so much its better.

The GW English Department has a short post on my book and the prize. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, which encouraged the book's unconventional framing, and to all ITM readers, without whom this book would never have been written: almost every page contains portions that were first experiments on this blog.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


a guest post by @LeVostreGC

Goode Friendes and Readers of Yn The Middel and readeres and scolers and teacheres and studentes arounde the globe of the Erthe, 

Yt doth fill my litel herte wyth gret happinesse to invyte yow to the fourth yeare of a moost blisful and plesinge celebracioun.

On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’

Thys feest ys yclept ‘Whan That Aprille Day.’ For thys yeare yt ys: 'Whan That Aprille Day 17.' Forget nat the "-le" yn Aprille. #WhanThatAprilleDay17

Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. All are welcome that come wyth love and understandinge to all. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of 'social media,' and eke, yf ye kan do yt, yn the material plane of the 'real worlde' as wel.

Ye maye, paraventure, wisshe to reade from the beginning of my Tales of Caunterburye, but ye maye also wisshe to reade of eny oothir boke or texte or scroll or manuscript that ye love. Ye maye even reade the poetrye of John Gower yf that ys yower thinge.

What are sum wayes to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye?

Gentil frendes, yf yt wolde plese yow to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye 2017, ye koude do eny of the followinge. Be sure to use the hasshe-tagge #WhanThatAprilleDay17 on yower poostes of twytter and facebooke and blogge.
  • Counte downe to Whan That Aprille Daye wyth postes and readinges.
  • Maken a video of yowerself readinge (or singinge! or actinge!) and share yt on the grete webbe of the internette. 
  • Planne a partye at yower classroome or hous to celebrate oolde langages, and poost pictures to the ynternette.
  • Read auncient langages to yower catte, and the catte shal be moost mirthful. 
  • Make sum maner of cake or pastrye wyth oold wordes upon yt, and feest upon yt wyth good folke and share pictures of yower festivitee. (And yet beware the catte that shal seke to eaten of the icinge yn the hours of derkenesse.) 
  • Yf ye be bold, ye maye wisshe to share yower readinge yn publique, yn a slam of poesye or a nighte of open mic. (Bringe the catte?)
  • Yf ye worke wyth an organisatioun or scole, ye maye wisshe to plan sum maner of event, large or smal, to share writinge yn oold langages.
  • And for maximum Aprillenesse, marke all tweetes and poostes wyth the hashtagge #WhanThatAprilleDay17 – remember the ‘Whan’ and ‘Aprille.’

What ys the poynte of Whan That Aprille Daye?
Ower mission ys to celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And thys ys for all wordes, of all tonges, and no tonge ys bettir than eny othir and all are belovid of us. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes and the gret wysdam and expertyse of the libraryans that care for them across the centuryes. To call to mynde the fundinge of the humanityes, the which ys lyke the light of the sonne on the plantes of learninge and knowledge. For wythout al of thes, the past wolde have no wordes for us.

Ower mission ys also to have ynogh funne to last until next Whan That Aprille Daye.

Note that thys event doth also coincide wyth Aprille Fooles Daye, the which ys fyne by cause we do love thes langages and alle who love are yn sum maner also fooles.

Ich do hope wyth al myn herte that that sum of yow good folke will joyne me on thys April first for readinge and celebratinge and foolinge. Lat us maken melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay17

Wyth muchel love and admiracioun

Le Vostre

Monday, February 13, 2017

3 Ecocritical CFPs for #MLA18

by J J Cohen

Dear friends working in any and all time periods,

Please consider submitting an abstract for either of these two panels being sponsored by the MLA Forum in Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities, of which I am the current chair -- as well as this allied session sponsored by the Science and Literature forum. WE would love to see you in January at MLA in New York City!

-- Jeffrey


How does place matter and insist, even at a hotel-centric MLA conference? The main focus of this roundtable is upon its NYC environs (at any point in time, and widely constructed: the Hudson, urban parks and ecosystems, tectonics, superstorm impacts, environmental justice: cities across long durations, or urbanity as space that opens very small scales). We also welcome otherwise-located considerations of "climate controlled" spaces to place into conversation as well. We are hoping to schedule a field trip to a nearby ecological site as part of this panel as a spur to communal thinking. 150 word abstracts by March 1 to Jeffrey Cohen,

co-sponsored with MLA Law and Humanities forum
For this roundtable session on “Legal Ecologies,” a collaboration between the MLA Law and Humanities forum and Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities forum, proposals are invited for short, 8-10 minute papers. Participants may consider a wide range questions, including, but not limited to, the following: how does the notion of ecology help us redescribelegal experience in terms that don’t depend on the grammar of the “I” and the “me”? What might we learn about key legal concepts such as intention, consent, judgment, responsibility, property, and personhood if we view them from an interspecies and/or materially grounded perspective? How might this theoretical re-orientation translate into new possibilities for environmental justice?
150-word abstracts by 10 March to Kevin Curran,

Forum: TC Science and Literature
Investigation of scientific and/vs. literary histories of weather, atmosphere, climate in particular cultural contexts, medieval period to present. Abstract (250 words) – bio (100 words) by 15 March 2017; Allison Carruth (

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Update: Whiteness in Medieval Studies (#Kzoo2017)

Dear ITM Readers:

Please note this UPDATE regarding a previously announced event on "Whiteness in Medieval Studies" at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) at Kalamazoo 2017:

ICMS has advised us that we may not hold our event at the location and time originally planned and has invited us to propose a session for 2018. We shall certainly do so; however, many recent and unforeseen circumstances at national
and global levels render urgent the need to create space for this dialogue in 2017 as well.

To this end, the Society for Medievalist Feminist Scholarship has generously agreed to include our discussion of "Whiteness in Medieval Studies" in this year's business meeting. We look forward to welcoming any Congress registrant who wishes to participate in this conversation to attend the later portion of the SMFS Business Meeting and Reception on Saturday, May 13, with this conversation starting at 5:45pm in Fetzer 1045.

Further details are forthcoming regarding the first of what we hope will be many productive, collaborative, and engaging discussions of our field's racial politics and how best to foster allyship and inclusion within and beyond medieval studies.

In solidarity,

An open fellowship of Medievalists of Color

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

"what lies hidden beneath the ice": white supremacy and dreams of the far north

by J J Cohen

Historian E. R. Truitt has written an accessible, wide-raging piece on enduring fantasies of the white North, from Hyperborea and Thule to Westeros and Ragnar Loðbrók, and the intimacy of such fantasy to contemporary white supremacy. I am going to quote the closing three paragraphs, but please read the whole essay at Aeon. The piece is perfect for sharing in the classroom as well.

But ever since the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of ‘northernness’ that is so central to white supremacy has become an inextricable element of our Fantasy North. Many white supremacists view ‘the Nordic race’ as exemplary of white racial purity, and defend a fantasy of authentic whiteness in the guise of protecting cultural heritage. Nativist groups have grown more prominent on the far right throughout Europe and the US. Emblazoned in runes, organising under names such as the Aryan Brotherhood or the White Order of Thule, their members recite the slogans ‘Mass Immigration – Genocide of White Nations’ and ‘Diversity Is A Code Word for White Genocide’. 
Perhaps this helps to explain why the Fantasy North has been enjoying its own cultural springtime. The iconography might be less visible, but white supremacist views are certainly making their way into the political mainstream. News outlets, politicians and pundits alike reference the ‘rising tide’ of people from outside the borders of European countries or the US. The story told by the Kensington Runestone – of a group of northern Europeans under attack – has found traction among many in North America and northern Europe who feel threatened by massive economic and demographic change. Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment have increased dramatically throughout Europe and North America since 2001. More recently, the frequency of violent crimes against people of colour, Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs has spiked in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and recent terrorist incidents. Meanwhile, in the Fantasy North white hegemony remains uncontested. 
Our current arctic reveries reflect the challenges of the moment. As the globe gets hotter and drier, the cold and flourishing northern landscape becomes even more appealing. Those troubled by increasing state authority, political graft and industrial ruin can find inspiration in the stories of the proud, uncorrupted rebels who inhabit the North. And for some, fantasies of strength and conquest become attractive in hostile political and economic conditions. Whatever expression these desires and fantasies take, they all draw on a set of ideas about the North that reaches back through the 19th century into the depths of recorded history. But we might well shiver at the thought of what lies hidden beneath the ice.

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Time of White Supremacy


Photo from Btown Justice
A set of fliers posted at University of Indiana, Bloomington, targeting the doors of faculty who have spoken out to protect immigrants, Muslims, and a heterogeneous America.

I'm struck by the claims these fliers collectively make about time:
"Let's Become Great Again"
"Protect Your Heritage."
"Our Destiny is Ours"
"Our Future Belongs to Us"

Only the present is missing here. In white grievance culture, the 'now' is the one thing they can never be claimed, because it's precisely this childish resentment in the now that fuels their fits about Wars on Christmas and the like. They know that the present isn't giving them what they want. They haven't accepted the independence of the world; they're babies. Murderous babies. So they claim that they have lost something ("Let's Become Great Again"), that they once had it ("Heritage"), that there's a certain automatic, unthinking future that will meet them if they can only find it ("destiny"), and that only by abandoning themselves to this destiny, the one thing that knows and accepts them, will they finally arrive at what is theirs ("future"). Here we have the double motion of nostalgia, which responds to the ill fit of any existence by reaching to other times, past and future, where things are supposed to work.
Shadowy hand holding a color slide with a reproduction of Bruegel's painting of the Tower of Babel.

A Statement Concerning Recent Events from the BABEL Working Group

We in the BABEL Working Group unanimously and unambiguously condemn the gross, discriminatory and inhumane policies that the current administration has tried to unilaterally force upon the American people without our consent, without a majority mandate, and without the backing of the legislative and judicial branches of our government.

We feel it is urgent to express our condemnation of the greatest executive atrocity that garnered the most attention and action last week: the #MuslimBan that disproportionately targets travelers, immigrants, and legal residents from several African and Middle Eastern, majority-Muslim countries. We further decry the kleptocratic favoritism being shown in this ban toward nationals from countries where the kleptocrat-in-chief has business ties; this, combined with the fact that no bans have been imposed on majority-Muslim countries not in the Middle East, like Indonesia, leads us to conclude that this ban is neither about national security nor is it even strictly about Islamophobia. Instead, we see this as a targeted, racist attack against persons of Middle Eastern and African origins for the political expediency of whipping up anti-Islamic furor in a white supremacist segment of the American population. And we absolutely deplore the administration’s willingness to enforce portions of this policy against the judgements of the courts with force of the Customs and Border Patrol that the executive branch has annexed as its own para-military arm of enforcement.

We in BABEL stand in solidarity with refugees, immigrants, and the protesters making their objections to this policy heard in airports and at direct actions across the U.S. We thank the ACLU and the countless lawyers, lawmakers, and translators who have used their time, energy, and influence to resist this action in every way possible, and who continue to resist it as it continues to be unlawfully executed. We affirm that our America is one built on religious tolerance and that the first amendment guarantees the freedom to practice one’s own religion--whatever it may be--in peace. We further affirm that this same amendment guaranteeing the freedom of religion also guarantees freedom from religion: the right to live one’s life without the state mandating any religious practice or adherence to a single religion’s ideals.  

We therefore also feel it necessary to denounce the administration’s attempt to create theocratic policies policing uteruses, sex, and sex organs. We believe that any attempt to regulate women’s bodies, female sexuality, access to women’s healthcare, and access to trans* healthcare, or to legalize discrimination against LGBTQIA communities in businesses, healthcare, bathrooms, or any institution is an infringement upon our first amendment rights to govern our own bodies according to the dictates of our own consciences. America is not, and never has been, a theocracy, and we soundly condemn any policy that attempts to govern the bodies of its citizens through mandates that are thinly-veiled morality legislation, backed by a very selective and corrupted Christian ideology.

The #MuslimBan does not exist in isolation. It is part of a larger strategy of demonization and dehumanization that are, at base, rooted in the white supremacy and misogyny openly practiced by several of the president’s closest advisors. We similarly find the GOP complicit in this administration’s efforts to dehumanize and defund vital services for various groups including women, veterans, educational institutions, and healthcare.

We condemn the politically motivated and haphazard fashion in which this administration seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act. First, the insistent efforts to repeal this law speak not of sincerely held political beliefs, but rather reveal political point-scoring and also a dangerous and profound misunderstanding of how the law works, and of how favorite elements such as the ban on pre-existing conditions is tied to the individual mandate. Second, without any coherent or viable replacement, access to healthcare for millions of Americans will be put into jeopardy. This will affect the poor and the disabled the most.
Further, although there have been no direct actions (aside from the Executive Order directing government agencies to work toward the repeal of the ACA) against People with Disabilities (PwDs), we are alarmed by what at worst seems to be contempt and at best seems to be indifference toward PwDs by this administration and by the campaign that brought it to office. We affirm that PwDs have the right to be fully participatory members of their communities and their government. This includes access to healthcare and to education.

The Wall is the grandest symbolic expression of the racist xenophobia of this administration and its supporters. It is symbolic, rather than practical since, even should it ever be built, it will not actually stop undocumented peoples from entering the country, though it may have disastrous environmental impacts for the non-human migratory populations that inhabit the border region. The function of this wall is to declare—first and foremost to Mexico, but also to the rest of the world—that the US rejects their peoples wholly and entirely. We condemn this literal division in the strongest terms as an act of supreme and craven cowardice, and declare our hearts and our homes open to those who have made long and dangerous journeys to arrive in this country along paths analogous to those our ancestors followed.

But further, we feel this is again not a specifically anti-immigrant policy so much as it is a racist policy that attempts to frame “Americanness” in terms of whiteness. We have seen this at work before, in efforts like the “Papers Please” Arizona legislation of SB 1070, which essentially legalized racial profiling and determined that anyone who “looked like” a potential undocumented immigrant, i.e. any Latinx person, could be stopped and asked for documentation of their legal right to be here. We would remind this administration that large portions of our country belonged to Mexico before the Mexican-American war, and many who are of Mexican descent are more native to these territories than the white Americans who tell them to “go back to where they’re from,” which, in many instances is and always has been California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.

Given the administration’s clear white supremacist agenda, we would also like to affirm our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Though we have yet to see a specifically anti-black policy emerge from this administration, we acknowledge that black populations have been living under the same kind of heightened risk and increased oppression that many Americans are just now coming to experience or understand. We stand against police brutality, the characterization of black men as hyper-aggressive or black women as hyper-sexual, against misogynoir, the criminalization of poverty that disproportionately affects communities of color, and the school-to-prison pipeline that incarcerates black men and women at three times the rate of other communities, re-creating a kind of modern-day slavery in private, for-profit prisons.

We further condemn the administration’s attempts to divert the American people’s attention and even outrage toward one heinous policy while trying to quietly push forward other policies that will be disastrous for Native populations and lands. Greenlighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, in which Trump himself is invested, when the courts and even the Army Corps of Engineers have halted progress on it for both environmental and legal reasons, shows the administration’s blatant disregard for tribal sovereignty, U.S. treaties with indigenous peoples, and the rights of Native Americans to govern and protect their own land and resources--particularly when the chief kleptocrat and his capitalist cronies’ pocketbooks are on the line. We demand that the administration abide by the binding treaties that have been made with Indigenous Americans and recognize that privileging business interests over the lives of Indigenous peoples will be met with resistance. We are all well aware that the DAPL was moved closer to protected Native lands, threatening their water supply, because the white residents of Bismarck South Dakota did not want to live with the risk of contaminating their own water supply. Once again, indigenous people are being asked to give up their health, their land, their resources, their ancestors, and their relatives for the safety and enrichment of white people.

We affirm that Native Americans have the right to determine the risks they face from non-native business interests. They have the right to peacefully protest any action that endangers their lives, their land, or their resources. Their sacred lands and spaces are entitled to the same sanctity, honor, and respect we would allow to any Christian sanctuary.

We stand with Standing Rock and the water protectors.

Further, we stand with all those working on behalf of the environment to protect and conserve the same resources that sustain all life on this planet. Mni Wiconi. Water is life. We as humans need it to survive on this planet along with everything else. We acknowledge that human beings are one part of an expansive, interconnected ecosystem and that damage to any part of that system endangers the lives of the whole system--including human lives.

We affirm that climate change is real. We believe the 99.9% of climate scientists who all agree that climate change is real, it is upon us, it is caused by human activity, and if we do not take steps to immediately remedy our impact upon the environment it may lead to mass extinction and a planet that is largely uninhabitable for human life.

The administration’s outright refusal to understand the scientific process and denial of the reality of facts will not make that reality any less real. Moreover, failure to act on climate policy will disproportionately affect developing countries and will cause a massive human migration crisis that may contribute to global instability.

“Alternative facts” are not substitutes for actual facts that have been discovered, vetted, published, and agreed upon by the majority of the scientific community. We condemn the administration’s attempt to undermine the scientific community and we regard their lies as attempts to censor scientists whose research does not align with the administration’s misguided, profit-seeking, ideologically-driven alternate reality.

We support the National Parks and Monuments that preserve our traditions and ecosystems from destruction, ensuring the education, enjoyment, and enrichment of ourselves and our families for generations to come. We regard the seizure and selling of these lands as a theft from the American public.

We similarly support rogue government agencies and actors who resist the Fahrenheit 2017 attempt to gag all facts and data produced or transmitted by the National Park Services, NASA, the CDC, the FDA, the EPA, the NIH and countless other government entities that produce or aggregate data to understand and improve our world and human life in it.

We condemn the administration’s blatant attempts to create an under-educated, anti-intellectual, consumerist populace. We regard the threatened elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as an attempt to shut down exactly the kinds of research and expression that foster free and critical thought, particularly within academia and the arts communities.

Finally, we believe that there is such a thing as a “public good,” a vague idea that insists that some things are good--not morally, not ethically, and not because of their use or exchange value, but because they add happiness, pleasure, ease, and aesthetic value to the experience of human beings. The public good is both the welfare of the public as a whole and the individual goods, services, or commodities that provide for the welfare of that public. We believe that the value of these public goods cannot be measured by any corporate (or civic) bottom line, but that they are nevertheless worthwhile investments of public funds because of their capacity to improve the lives of all Americans. We believe that all Americans should have equal unfettered access to public goods.

We believe that art, literature, science, technology, and information are public goods. We believe that housing, infrastructure, education, healthcare, childcare, and parental leave are public goods. We believe that the freedom to practice (or not practice) one’s own religion or spirituality without fear of violence or infringement of others is a public good. We believe that the right to exist in a public space without the threat of violence or removal because of one’s gender expression, identity, or sexual orientation is a public good. We believe that diversity and decolonization are also in the public good, making us as a society more humane, egalitarian, and empathetic.

As a collective of scholars, artists, independent thinkers, and activists, we affirm the public good of education, the humanities, and the arts as much as we affirm the good of science, research, and filling the coffers of human knowledge with new information and appreciation for the old. We are the rabble, we are the resistors and protesters, the deconstructors with our fists raised in defiance. But we are also the builders, the collectors, the archivists, the investigators, the detectives of history, the mystics, the visionaries, the utopians. Many of us are medievalists whose professional life centers around the investigation of the past and the affirmation of its relevance to our present moment. Never have we felt this to be more true than we do right now. We draw lessons as well as inspiration from the past and from imaginative histories and what might-have-beens. Our very namesake comes from the biblical story of the humans who were too cooperative, too productive, too good at building. They became a threat to the existing order and were thus knocked down, destroyed, and scattered in an effort to keep humans in their place, divide them, and make it impossible to achieve heaven on earth.

As BABELers, were are therefore poets, makers, creators engaged in an impossible but idealistic project that is always aimed at the ever receding limit above us. As a collective we seek for collaboration and radical inclusivity as we continue this utopian project of building an edifice in opposition to the existing powers that would prefer we remain divided and unable to speak to one another. We are profaners of the faith in money, in capital, in hierarchy, hatred and division. We believe in humanity. We believe in the future. We believe in our planet. We believe in science. We believe in art. And we will continue to create, to make, to build, to write, to rally, to cry out with a unified voice against injustice, division, hate, dehumanization, and the defiling of our habitat. We will continue to do this work not only for ourselves, but also for that public in whose name we create, we learn, and we educate.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Collaborative Translation: The Laws of Crusader Outremer Project


Briefly noted - last night, the Medieval Club of New York was fortunate enough to witness, and participate in, a presentation by Fordham University's Laura Morreale and Nicholas Paul, on their translation project of the French Laws of Crusader Outremer. Here's a link to the project. As they observed, the late twelfth to late thirteenth-century Crusader kingdoms produced a vast body of original French writing, mostly charters, unsurprisingly, but also a large quantity of law texts. These laws, as Nicholas Paul noted in particular, were a kind of laboratory for chivalric practice and belief: many are oriented towards ritual, towards proper speech formulas, and so on.

Morreale and Paul are leading an online translation effort using FromThePage, a custom-built tool for creating collaborative digital editions of texts. Paul and Morreale and their shifting group of collaborators meet twice weekly, online, for an hour's work in translating, working from OCR'd versions of 19th-century editions of the laws, themselves checked regularly against manuscripts and modern editions. It's fun! We know, because our presenters pulled up a text, and we, as an audience, along with two experts brought in via Google Chat, put our Old French to work and got down to translating.

Here's a sample of what we worked on:

Frankly, the rubric gave us the most trouble: 'Ici orrés la raison': we settled on 'words' for 'raison,' but not without some [expert!] struggle. The other question: when the king's been 'retenu en prison,' has he been taken prisoner or put in prison? Surely we're talking about captivity in general rather than a particular space? And so on.

The bulk of what we produced - and, again, this is a working translation - is here:

If it happens through some mishap that the king be defeated at battle and that the Turcs take him and hold him as prisoner, and then it happens that the king has such parley with the Turcs that put to ransom at a set price and he asks the queen and his [homes liege|liege men] that they pay the ransom and they cannot because they cannot find anyone to lend them so much, and the king agrees with the Turcs to grant them as hostage for him as many of his liege men and they will consider themselves paid.

For a list of texts, what's been done, and what's left to do, see here.

Friday, January 27, 2017

#Kzoo2017 Preview: Rogue Workshop and an Invitation

Dearest ITM Readers:

The draft program for #Kzoo17 (International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI) is now online. Check it out!

As you start to plan out your conference schedule, note this event not listed on the official program:
Whiteness in Medieval Studies: a rogue workshop on racial politics that will explore how medievalists in all areas of study can be effective allies for diversity and inclusion within our institutions and across our field. Saturday, May 13th, 6-7:30pm, Fetzer 1005. UPDATE: NEW VENUE: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS) Business Meeting and Reception, Saturday, May 13, with this conversation starting at 5:45pm in Fetzer 1045. [more updates here]
And also an invitation:
If you're a person of color (i.e., racial or ethnic minority) working in medieval studies and you'd like to be added to a listserv of Medievalists of Color (MOCs), please contact the current list administrator Jonathan Hsy: jhsy [at] gwu [dot] edu.
This message is posted on behalf of an open fellowship of medievalists of color.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nothing to Lose: Medieval Castration, Part II


And here's the sequel to yesterday. Again, I am so struck by the weirdness of medieval texts, which so rarely, when we get down to details, offer up the dreadful homogeneity that the Right imputes to its fantasy of "European origins." Even doctrinal texts enweird, because they take their questions so very seriously. Nothing goes without saying, and no one would ever bat away a limit case as irrelevant.

This is a draft: I'm sharing it with a writing group in...10 minutes or so, and then workshopping it further at CUNY on Feb 10th, and then getting it off my hands, although I have a glimmer of something more ambitious planned for it. Comments are welcome!

Entering Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; BnF fr. 1544, 105r

Circumvention needs to be sought elsewhere, through the path of indifference. It is with this in mind that I turn to two additional stories of genital injury, one of an outlier in relation to the discourse I described, and the other that might be called a non-phallic castration, a version of the injury that disassociates it from the law, sacrifice, and fantasies of bodily wholeness. The first comes from Henry of Saltry’s late twelfth-century Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. It was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages--including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions -- the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential physical journey through a place of torment taken by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before being returned to this world.[1] Though scholars and indeed many of the work’s medieval adapters have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[2] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard in a kind of long con. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[3] Nothing more is said of the girl. The only real surprise here is the praise for auto-castration distributed widely through a culture that officially denounced it.

A few decades after Henry of Saltry wrote his work, Peter of Cornwall produced his Book of Revelations, and with it, a story of genital injury whose moral and narrative incoherence frees it from the overwhelming significance typically granted castration by medieval and modern culture both. The Book of Revelations comprises more than a 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, nearly all drawn from the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. His is a conservative work, with no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, while its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don't, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material. Peter of Cornwall's general introduction has him claim only to want to confound those who believe the world is ruled "a casu" [75; by chance] and to prove that we possess immortal spirits, as a spirit that dies with the body is indistinguishable from that of "iumentorum omniumque brutorum animalium" [82-83; all beasts and the brute animals].

Above all, Peter intends to prove that the afterlife exists. For these among other reasons, his version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory stands out, because it satisfies neither this nor any of his work's stated needs. Though he locates this story in Purgatory, and includes it amid a crowd of pious, cautionary tales, it ultimately refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular, and it likewise ultimately fails to prove anything about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world. The story proper runs as follows: a knight enters a large and beautiful hall, and is shortly thereafter greeted by its master, a certain King Gulinus and his retinue, who enter to wild applause, “as if” returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[4] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. In the bed Gulinus had prepared, she and the knight are about to have sex, when he discovers himself instead embracing a “truncum vetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem” [most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk], and his penis—now become a twig—trapped tight in a knot in what had been her body. A servant compounds his misery by hammering away at the knight’s penis for hours on end, simultaneously shredding it and wedging it further into the knot. The Latin here is richly ambiguous: “uirilem uirgam” can mean penis, or, literally, the “male twig”; “truncam” means either a tree trunk or a torso; and, as its modern editors emphasize, the minister who bangs on the knight does so “uiriliter” [like a man]. Gulinus then asks his servants to bring him his “son-in-law [gener].” Gulinus inquires after his well-being, and, when the knight complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers is no better: there, trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few "emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind."

Elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally. A secular man visits a site in Ireland and physically travels through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinarily pain and suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret"[5] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[6] But there are stark differences even here: unlike Peter's story, Gerald promises that any who undergo this suffering will be relieved from any further infernal punishment. No such reward awaits Peter’s unfortunate knight. Finally, the rocky walls of Purgatory hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy, since an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so "thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now."[7] But the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments: these indispensable elements of nearly any other Patrick’s Purgatory story are all missing.

Most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter, as this is where the usual significance of otherworldly torment and genital injury simply fails to apply. The king and daughter are somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[8] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[9] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[10] But Peter of Cornwall's log lady moves in the opposite direction, from beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and finally to hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[11]

For the purposes of this chapter, I am most interested in what happens to the knight's genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[12] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it in in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval textuality more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight's first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for him, as this castration does not work as castration, culturally speaking, because it has lacks the usual frames of sacrifice or punishment. Since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[13] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. Most tellingly, the genital injury happens first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking precedence, except that one – the final one, which is the game, hurts more than the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory. You can’t swing a human-cow hybrid without hitting yet another medieval story of strange bodily transformations and outrageous suffering.[14] What is rare is this framework that promises meaning -- again, in the context of nearly a thousand other, straightforward otherworld visions -- that then disappoints so radically.

In the context of Peter of Cornwall’s larger project, the story makes even less sense. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Though we might collect still other analogues, it remains difficult to comprehend what we were supposed to take away from this story. In this very material otherworld, all there is pain and the transgression of the limits of the body. It would be far easier to work with were it not called a Purgatory and not meant for a purpose to which it is so poorly suited.

The story likely ended up in Peter’s collection because of the grotesque transformations the knight undergoes, because this is what happens in hell. Bodies in heaven tend to be stable. Though some Christian commentators imagine the souls of the blessed as sparks or perfect glowing spheres,[15] or as transparent, without secrets—as they are in the Old English “Christ III” and Blickling Homily 10, or, later in the Middle Ages, Thomas of Cantimpré’s life of Margaret of Ypres[16]—though they are often imagined as being able to fly, or to communicate without speaking, they all still realize the fantasy of bodily integrity. But the damned tend to preserve only enough of themselves to be recognizable as suffering. Mostly they are treated like meat: run through with forks, boiled in cauldrons, swallowed in the hellmouth. In the Carolingian vision of Fulrad, the damned are:
Nam nunc in uno nunc in alio latere vertebatur, nunc supinus nunc prostratus, nunc erectus nunc contractus, nunc sedes nunc iterum iacens, more columbri potius quam hominis anxiando volvebatur
now turned around on this or that flank, now lying face up or face down, now upright, now compressed, now sitting, now lying down again, in anguish, twisting about one another more in the manner of snakes than humans.[17]
Another of Peter of Cornwall’s unique visions has his own grandfather escape an infernal house by scrambling up a set of earthenware jars, which close over his hands, “like pursestrings,” but which he uses later as shields when a crowd of demons pelt him with wood and fire. Though this episode ends with a claim that the visionary explained “all the things that he had seen,”[18] Peter notably omits that explanation, because the strangeness itself may be the point.

Typical methods of meaning-making fail here. We ought not to push too hard to resolve this problem. Nor should we propose that the meaninglessness itself has some greater meaning, which is to say, we ought to avoid the temptation of apophasis, that mystical method of refusing to pin down the presumptively infinite, ungraspable qualities of God—or a text. This elevates meaninglessness into its own master code, and, in the case of Peter of Cornwall’s story, does so with an account of extraordinary suffering.

The main line of the medieval castration discourse presents it as assault on manhood or familial reproduction and all supposed to go with these qualities. A subset of this discourse offers up the gift of castration as purification, an exchange of the genitals for surer participation in the regime of the phallus. The main line of the Saint Peter’s Purgatory tradition belongs to this tradition, though it oddly deviates even from nearly contemporary canon law in offering up auto-castration as admirable behavior for a cleric.[19] But in Peter of Cornwall’s Purgatory tradition, genital injury is just something that happens, the injury that welcomes him into torment, but which otherwise concludes nothing. Our knight probably should not have slept with Gulinus’s daughter, but that may be all we can take from it. Peter provides this story in a seemingly meaningful framework, among a host typical monastic stories of punishment, reward, and spiritual vision, but this episode, alone among both Peter’s collection and the larger purgatorial tradition, refuses the straightforward sense that is otherwise so typical of these kinds of stories.

This senselessness finally suggests a way to refuse to grant castration the importance that it typically demands, which is to say, a story of suffering without redemption of admonition suggests a way to refuse to treat the penis as a phallus. I offer Anna Kłosowska's analysis of the Mater Dolorosa at the foot of the cross, who experiences "suffering without transcendence," because her pain, unlike her son's, solves nothing, cures nothing, redeems nothing.[20] Kłosowska here prefers the mother to the Christ. Maggie Nelson's Art of Cruelty, which argues against the supposed “relationship between injury and fact, clarity and cruelty,” against the notion that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction, that they require violence to shock us out of our complacency.[21] Without denying the bizarre hilarity of what the knight undergoes, we can think with Kłoswoska and Nelson to propose that the very meaninglessness of the knight's suffering should be preserved as meaningless, and that the best response to his pain may be to refuse to interpret it, and thereby to refuse it the dignity of a sacrifice. He is exchanging nothing for his body. Since all he gets in return is pain, from a obscene father-in-law who never suggests that what he commands is anything but a mean joke, sympathy rather than honor might be the better mood. Though we might trace more and more possibilities of meaning, through increasingly acute psychoanalytic, folkloric, and doctrinal contextualization and analysis, perhaps we ought not to, or at least ought not to with an eye towards resolution: an explanation can often have the force of a theodicy, an attempt to justify suffering according to some master code.

Of course, we can do no good for the knight himself. This is all imaginary. It would probably be foolish to label what I am proposing here as a kind of ethical relationship to this pain. But I do think that Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory offers a chance to critics to rethink the relationship between, on the one hand, narrative pain and peril, and, on the other, the production of meaning. After all, making meaning can seem to align us with the agents of juridical violence and their attempts to confirm the law, and extrajudicial sovereignty, by writing it on the body. There may be some value in asserting that sometimes a castration is just a castration, without the burden or meanings, and protections, insisted upon by either Freudian or monastic anxiety.

[1] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[2] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[3] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[4] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013), 136–37.

[5] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[6] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[7] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[8] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[9] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[10] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[11] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Murray, “Male Embodiment,” 13–14.

[12] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[13] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

[14] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 73–74.

[15] Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 51.

[16] Jackie A. Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling, “Before and After Theory: Seeing through the Body in Early Medieval England,” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (2010): 349–51; Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives, trans. Barbara Newman (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 205.

[17] Karl Hempe, ed., “Eine ungedruckte Vision aus karolingischer Zeit,” Neues Archiv 22 (1897): 629.

[18] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, 209, 211.

[19] See the discussion of discusses Ivo of Chartres (Decretum, PL 161:523D-524A, and Panormia, PL 161:1143C) in  Murphy, “Problem of Being a Eunuch,” 168.69.

[20] Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 35.

[21] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 95.