Friday, January 20, 2006
Draft of Introduction, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain
(The book is currently in production. For the time being, here is the draft of the introduction, sans footnotes. The volume will appear in May. Follow the link at right [under "Books"] for more information).
Introduction: In medias res
When contemplating the many peoples who had inhabited their island's expanses, writers in twelfth-century Britain found themselves pulled in two divergent directions. Living in the difficult aftermath of conquest, they were powerfully attracted to a stark vision of past and present in which collective identities remained constant, retaining their elemental differences. The triumphant arrival of a new people (the Romans in the days of Caesar, the English in the fifth century, the Normans at Hastings) had led, they supposed, to a transfer of dominion, a change in power that strengthened the boundaries between communities rather than eroded them. This idea of a keenly distinct past for each insular people had been bequeathed to the twelfth century by predecessors like Gildas and Bede. One a polemicist for the native Britons and the other a partisan of the parvenu Angles, these writers arrived from opposite sides of a bitter struggle for British hegemony. Both composed narratives stressing the separateness of the peoples with whom they identified. Neither allowed some middle space to exist where the two might ally, mingle, even combine. Like the classical and patristic authors in whom they had been trained, Gildas and Bede assumed the enduring distinctiveness of the earth's populations.
Yet there also lurked the haunting knowledge that the world is combinative and complicated. Bede's immigrant ancestors may have eradicated or marginalized many of Britain's indigenes, but they are just as likely to have merged with these populations, spurring mutual assimilations and profound collective transformations. The Normans may have conquered England and annexed Wales, but they also vanished in the process, assimilating to -- as well as altering -- native ways. Between imagined or desired absolutes like "Angle" and "Briton," "English" and "Norman," "Christian" and "Jew" flourished recalcitrant impurities. In the wake of conquest as well as less martial types of cultural encounter, fusions of difference inevitably arise. Postcolonial theorists label such conflictual convergence hybridity. As Robert J. C. Young has observed, hybridity is a concept that can carry two antithetical meanings, "contrafusion and disjunction … as well as fusion and assimilation." Like its contemporary manifestations examined by Young, hybridity in medieval Britain tended to mix both these senses. Never synthetic in the sense of homogenizing, hybridity is a fusion and a disjunction, a conjoining of differences that cannot harmonize them.
Because, for the most part, medieval historiography stressed the timeless separation of peoples, generic and linguistic constraints ensured that hybridity was not easy to express. Coincidence of the divergent was especially disquieting to writers who carried admixture in their very body, writers who had to labor to invent some lexicon for representing their own compoundedness. The historian William of Malmesbury and the ethnographer Gerald of Wales were the biological products of conquest. Their mixed descent triggered self-conflict , fostering an uncertainty and hesitation evident in the texts they composed. Yet even authors who appeared to lack such postcolonial ambivalence were ultimately unable to efface completely the hybridity that permeated their worlds. Bede (who bequeathed to the twelfth century its dominating picture of the English past), Geoffrey of Monmouth (who authored a counter-history in which the Britons replaced Bede's glorious Angles) and Thomas of Monmouth (who wrote a saint's life that attempted to revitalize a city sundered by conquest) composed texts in which the island's peoples seem, at first glance, to form well bounded communities. These authors limned the borders of collective identities by demonizing Britons, Saxons, Jews. On deeper examination, however, all three of their texts yield glimpses of a deep interpenetration of peoples and cultures, of tempestuous intermediacies that undermine such clean separations.
Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity maps the perturbed expanses between collective identities in twelfth-century Britain. Such middle spaces were "difficult" in a double sense: difficult to articulate, and difficult to inhabit. And yet they were everywhere. Hybrid geographies burgeoned in the wake of migration, conquest, colonization. They proliferated at interstices, beside borders, along margins. They could also thrive within seemingly homogenous centers. The ambit of this book therefore wanders Ireland, the Welsh march, provincial as well as cosmopolitan England. Difficult middles, I do not doubt, erupted within many genres of writing in twelfth-century Britain. I limit myself here, however, to provocative examples from three Latin discourses: historiography, ethnography, and hagiography. William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the Kings of the English, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Gerald of Wales various Welsh and Irish texts, and Thomas of Monmouth's Life of Saint William of Norwich betray a recurring fascination with abstruse but spectacular phenomena -- prodigies, transformed persons, sorcerers, bestiality, tempests formed of blood, monsters, reveries of dismemberment, cadavers possessed of abiding life. These arresting figures embody the medialities precise language could not well express. Refusing the chaste solitude of singular categories, they intermixed and confounded all that was supposed to be held apart.
By the time the twelfth century drew to a close, the vigorous English community disrupted by the Norman conquest had reformed, in part by dehumanizing people who differed in religion, language, custom, descent, history. The pages of this book follow the struggles that occurred in Wales, in Ireland, and within England itself as some of their residents strained against debasing representation. The Welsh, the Irish and the Scots found themselves depicted as barbarians or beasts, dwelling at a savage periphery. Likewise demonized were the Jews, imagined to imperil the lives of Christians in the English cities where they cohabitated. Narratives of separation in the guise of ethnography, history and hagiography helped to bring exclusive political and cultural solidities into being. Yet difficult middles proliferated at the heart or along the margins of these circumscriptive works, promising alternative histories, visions of the past and present in which difference never proves absolute, and English triumphalism becomes only one possibility among many others.
Of the peoples populating twelfth-century Britain's imagined past, some possessed a lengthy history, real or assumed (English, Irish, Scots, Welsh); some had vanished through emigration, acculturation or eradication (Romans, Picts, Danes); one was a minority whose cultural importance far overshadowed its meager physical presence (the Jews); one was paradoxically both separate and rapidly assimilating (the Normans); and one was not a group who had ever inhabited Britain, but who were present all the same through historiography, crusade polemic, and the visual arts (Saracens). Yet these collective identities do not, at some profound level, exist. In reviewing Marjorie Chibnall's important book The Normans, Leah Shopkow notes that the founding fathers of Normandy were not French-speakers but a diverse array of Scandinavians; that Normans never constituted a majority population of any geography they made their own; that Norman invaders tended to adopt quickly local languages and customs; that their invasion forces were ethnically diverse; and that a century and a half after their unprecedented expansion the only Normans who had not vanished into other populations were those who had remained in Normandy, where they were destined to be absorbed into France. We may therefore wonder with Shopkow what exactly made all these people Normans to begin with. Yet, despite the difficulties we contemporaries might have with the collective noun, the Normans themselves were confident that they possessed what G.A. Loud labels a "racial distinctiveness." Even while their official histories acknowledged their mixed origins, they seldom wavered in their conviction that they were a singular and united people, set apart from all others.
As part of our medieval inheritance we often speak as if groups such as the Normans, Britons and English persisted from time immemorial, continuous and unchanged. Typically, however, the peoples in question were heterogeneous solidarities that changed radically over time, both in composition and self-definition. Such mutable groups possess no stable or core essence. They are not reducible to genetic inheritance or biological descent. Their enduring status as a collective belongs to the realm of fantasy, where it nonetheless demonstrates a powerful ability to give substance and historical stability to what is ultimately impalpable. Community has to be imagined, to use Benedict Anderson's useful phrase, because it never arrives preformed. Such communalization is typically a process of sorting difference, establishing boundaries, and separating the world's disorder into peoples held to be patently discrete.
It used to be assumed, as the medieval sources themselves assume, that Rome dissolved when Europe was invaded by culturally homogenous groups like the Goths. The large-scale movements of these barbarians, it was thought, displaced aboriginal populations, either through genocide or forced relocation. Recently, however, scholars such as Walter Pohl have argued that via a process dubbed ethnogenesis collective identities can quickly metamorphosize. Ethnogenesis typically works when a minority elite imposes its culture upon a subjugated population. Invaded peoples are not eradicated but absorbed into a newly dominating identity. Much contemporary work on the peoples who eventually became known as the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Danes of the Danelaw stresses that the number of immigrants to the British Islands was likely to have been small. Freshly arriving warriors would have intermarried with indigenous peoples, impressing upon them their art, religion, values, culture, making it appear that what was in biological fact a mixed community constituted a fairly unified group of "Britons" or "Anglo-Saxons" or "Danes." In this way a native population could be transformed at the hands of a band of conquerors. As Florin Curta points out in his summary of recent anthropological work on ethnicity, moreover, group identity may be culturally constructed through such impositions, but it is not thereby rendered insubstantial: "ethnicity is not innate, but individuals are born with it ... it is not biologically reproduced, but individuals are linked to it through cultural constructions of biology."
Collective identity is paradoxical. Although it may seem to offer at any given moment an impermeable boundary, firmly separating one people from another, over time its contours tend to be elastic, altering to adapt to changing political and cultural contexts. This dynamism can be productive, allowing a previously divided or heterogeneous group to cohere. Strategic adoption of communal nomination, the embrace of a mythic history, and the monsterization of those exterior to community can give even a newly amalgamated identity a seemingly ancient solidity. Yet enforcement of a circumscriptive boundary to demarcate the members of this ascendant identity often foists restrictive union upon those who have been excluded. Should this latter people also be politically subordinate, the reconfigured identity bestowed upon them will tend to congeal into a carceral category, locking them in alien terms. It will often seem that between those who have been "othered" (represented as inferior, bestial, monstrous) and those who belong to some dominating collective (in this book typically the English, but sometimes the Normans) stretches only a line of segregation. Yet this geography always turns out to be far vaster than most sorting of the world allows. Between these belongings stretch endless medial spaces, precarious expanses inhabited by hybridities irreducible to one side or another of a bifurcated world.
In the Middle
Much of my previous scholarship has been dedicated to exploring the middle spaces of the Middle Ages: the regions between the human and the monster, the normal and the queer, woman and man, Christian and Jew and Saracen, human and animal. Much of this work has made use of psychoanalytic theory and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity continues this ongoing investigation into identity at its limits, making quiet use of contemporary critical race, feminist and postcolonial theory. This project is intended to contribute to what a collective of fourteen medievalists have nominated the Postcolonial Middle Ages, where "postcolonial" stands for a diverse alliance of work that stresses the uneven structures of power that come into being when cultures meet. Conquest, domination, and injustice are predictable outcomes of such clash. Innovation, hybridity, and resistance are, however, never far behind. Postcolonial theory has explored at great lengths and within a multitude of traditions the discordant commingling of differences that produces hybridity. The utility of such work as a spur to reconceptualizing cultural admixture in the medieval period is immense. Hybridity does not indicate some peaceful melding of colonizer and colonized. It does not imply the purity or homogeneity of categories like "subaltern" prior to the advent of conquest, and it neither obliterates nor supersedes the histories it intermingles. Hybridity is so useful because it can never be an absolute category. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin aptly call it a productive "interleaving" that engenders the new without superseding anterior cultures. Homi Bhabha describes hybridity as provisional, unstable, even ludic. Incapable of calling into being some "totalizing, transcendent identity," hybridity is a space where "cultural differences 'contingently' and conflictually touch," inducing panic, resisting binarism. Bhabha's work has rightfully been instrumental for medievalists engaged in postcolonial-inflected projects. Yet I have also made ample use of critical models amplified outside of English India. Analysis of Caribbean creolization by Antonio Benitez-Rojo and Edward Kamau Brathwaite are especially provocative for their emphasis on how hybridity proliferates novel forms without obliterating their incongruous histories. Gloria Anzaldúa's poetic framing of mestizaje at the US-Mexican borderlands conjoins a somber contemplation of past violence to an exuberant exploration of future becomings. Her reverie on border identities seems at times positively medieval with its inventive deployment of marvels and monsters. Although I will not explicitly engage much of this work until midway through this book, the influence of these writers should be evident throughout.
Hybridity, Indentity and Monstrosity focuses mainly upon the southeast portion of the island of Britain, an area that consolidated itself into a unified kingdom and baptized itself England. I stress, however, the dependence of that nation's self-definition upon those with whom it shared geographic and imaginative space. The book is divided into five chapters that tell a cumulative though not quite chronological story about the intertwining of collective identity, history, hybridity, and monstrosity in twelfth-century Britain. Some of the common threads binding the analysis are an interest in the dynamics of community formation, especially in the wake of conquest; an emphasis upon exclusion and demonization as catalysts to self-delimitation; and an inquiry into what function narratives play in precipitating or revitalizing such unions. Every chapter centers upon or comes back to the impurity and heterogeneity that impossibly neat categories like "English" and "Christian" conceal. The tumultuous admixture of what was supposed to be held separate is frequently the work of the medieval monster, a defiantly intermixed figure who is in the end simply the most startling incarnation of hybridity made flesh. The monster can embody the abject, such as when the Welsh or the Jews are transfigured into bloodthirsty foes, bereft of humanity. Yet the monster can also offer a body through which can be dreamed the dangerous contours of an identity that refuses assimilation and purity.
"Acts of Separation," the first chapter, provides a succinct overview of the components from which collective identity was held to be formed in twelfth-century Britain. Many of the elements integral to status as a separate people seem at first glance to be disembodied or abstract: customs, ritual, law, language, religion .Yet each of these was understood to be a nearly congenital inheritance, the corporeal performance and fleshly expression of a shared and pre-existent selfhood. The sheer embodiedness and therefore the intractability of collective identity was reinforced by theories that tied national character to ancient climatological and environmental influence. Of course, history proves that a people's laws can be changed, languages can be learned or extinguished, and a heterogeneous assortment of peoples can become a single race that believes firmly in its own individuality. Difference can be abjected onto foreigners or subalterns, people who might be represented as not in possession of full humanity; yet group status and relative prestige tend to fluctuate over time. Because of the human tendency towards mutability and admixture, collective identity was always troubled by its own fragility.
Chapter Two, "Between Belongings," examines texts by Bede, William of Malmesbury, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, three historians who turned to the past to imagine collective identities essential to a troubled present. When Bede composed his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, no England yet existed. The southeast of the island was a battleground of small kingdoms in martial competition. These petty realms were amalgams of peoples whose ancestors had arrived from various parts of northern Europe, displacing and absorbing native Britons. By imaging that a multicultural and conflictual expanse was the natural dominion of a single race, the gens Anglorum, Bede bequeathed to history a powerful formulation of English singularity. When a country called England did arrive two centuries later, it was happy to embrace Bede's myth of origin. The events of 1066, however, struck a severe blow against this unity. Writing early in the twelfth century, the monk William of Malmesbury attempted to restore continuity to what seemed a disjunct past. Of dual Norman and English descent, William thought that he was well positioned to accomplish this task. Yet reconciling the two pieces of his identity proved no easier than accommodating the Normans into native history. A fascination with the monstrous, with bodies that cannot reconcile their constitutive differences, pervades William's narration of postcolonial England. As anxious as William may have been about English identity, however, he probably never felt the same defensiveness as the Welsh, a people dismissed by the English and Normans alike as barbarians. The last section of the chapter examines how Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an alternative account of Britain that could challenge the anglocentric version originated by Bede and reinvigorated by William. A mischievous and confounding text, Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain renarrated the British past, founding the island upon blood that at first glance seems remarkably pure but on closer examination turns out to be far more hybrid than even that which coursed through William of Malmesbury's veins.
A compound heritage haunted another famous writer of the twelfth-century, a man who was at once celibate cleric, Paris-educated intellectual, court chaplain, preacher of crusade, and descendant of a Norman conquistador and a Welsh princess. Gerald of Wales spent his long life discovering that his multiplicitous identity could be severely circumscribed by the definitional power of others. The English elite could dismiss him as Welsh, while the Welsh could reject him as French. Gerald was never able to reconcile the multiple histories that he incarnated, the doubled blood that he bore. Early in his career he alleviated some of his uncertainty by energetically participating in the conquest of Ireland, an island distant enough for him to imagine that its population was a subhuman race, barely distinguishable from livestock. As Gerald began to sympathize and in part identify with another barbarian people, the Welsh, he became obsessed by monstrous bodies. Strangely admixed forms became his dominant mode not only for representation of hybridity but for launching an exploration of his own conflicted flesh.
The analysis moves in the fourth chapter, "City of Catastrophes," from the vastness of national and international space to the confines of a provincial city. The dominant urban center in East Anglia, Norwich became an economic force during the period of the Viking settlement and was, at the eve of the Norman conquest, among the most populous communities of England. Perhaps because of its associations with the family of the last English king, Norwich was profoundly reconfigured by these new wielders of insular dominion. The implantation of a massive castle, towering cathedral, and French borough radically altered urban topography. Native architectural and social structures were demolished, replaced by imported ones different from anything Norwich had previously known. "City of Catastrophes" reads these challenges to identity and community not only from surviving texts but from the architecture itself, arguing that in the transformation of Norwich can be glimpsed the material consequences of the conquest, and especially its shattering effect upon indigenous ways of life. To restore harmony to this fractured, violently commingled community was going to take not only time but a miracle.
Or a whole series of miracles. The last chapter, "The Flow of Blood in Norwich," investigates the attempts by the masters of the Norman cathedral to foster a new saint's cult. In 1144 a twelve-year-old boy named William was found murdered in the woods just outside the city. His corpse bore the marks of torture. An accusation was made by his family that William had been martyred by Norwich's most recent immigrants, the Jews. The boy's bereaved family found surprising allies in the monks who staffed the city's cathedral, and William's cult enabled a city sundered by history to begin to imagine itself as a unity. This chapter explores how the Life of St William, composed by Thomas of Monmouth, attempts to imagine this new community, but at the same time betrays the lingering differences that prevent an ultimate harmony. Thomas's text sloughs onto the Jews the alterity that once characterized the Normans arriving in Norwich, and makes the argument that should the city rid itself of these monsters dwelling amongst them, the traumatic history still evident in the city's topography will finally be surmounted. The text attempts to perform a purification, purging the city of hybridity and lasting difference by embodying all that is intolerable in the homicidal Jews.
My evidence throughout this book is gathered mainly from narratives composed by a changed island's clerical elite. These energetic and literate men, introspective and unfailingly ambitious, turned to the writing of history, hagiography and ethnography in order to make sense of a difficult present. They lived during a time of extraordinary cultural clash and social change. Many were, as a result, of mixed heritage. William of Malmesbury was Norman on his fathers' side and English on his mother's. In the body of Gerald of Wales the blood of Norman Marchers alloyed with that of Welsh royalty. Geoffrey and Thomas, both of whom styled themselves "of Monmouth," were of unknown descent, but traced their origin from a border town known for its commingling of Welsh, Bretons, Normans and English. Not all of the texts examined in this book are linguistic, however, nor is the focus simply upon communal identifications as grand as the nation. My discussion of Gerald of Wales focuses upon an identity agonizingly personal. The book's fourth and fifth chapters are forays into local and urban history, reading upheavals in communal belonging through the drastically altered contours of a city. Although this book focuses upon England, my approach is oblique: England by way of the archipelago into which it was rapidly expanding, England without anglophilia. By stressing the internal heterogeneity of the inhabitants of the British Isles, my aim is to foreground the differences that had to be surmounted in order to imagine that England constituted a homogeneous unity. By stressing the importance of minority populations in general and one in particular, I also intend to counteract somewhat a limitation that Sheila Delany aptly labels inherent in "our normative training" as medievalists, a training that tends to be "profoundly eurocentric and, within that, christiancentric." This book is therefore populated by the Jews, barbarians, and other human monsters who found themselves ineligible for inclusion in the burgeoning England of the twelfth century. Throughout my analysis, whether of histories that link present perturbations to a more settled past in the hopes of a stable future, or of hatred unleashed against outsiders in order to bring internal cohesion to collectives, or of the irreconcilable differences that a postcolonial society plants deep in the flesh of its members, I find in every case that medieval narratives of collective identity are bordered by and frequently enclose at their heart confounding hybridities.
It is to an examination of the construction of corporate identity that I now turn, with an eye to explaining why it that a people can seem at once eternally stable and perpetually in flux, and what middle spaces expand between even the most solid of boundaries.