Tuesday, January 31, 2006

More on PoCo Medievalism: RSL

Between the cannibal pigs and the panicked dominatrix who suddenly popped up in the comments to that last entry, it's been easy to lose the PoCo thread. Then again (to return to the porcine disposal devices of that clever serial killer) there must be something potentially glimpsable via a postcolonial lens whenever it comes to the regulation of eating practices. Karl the Grouchy Medievalist observed that Irish penitentials mandated pigs consuming human flesh had to be starved and refattened before they could become holiday hams. Am I correct in remembering that those same Irish penitentials likewise imposed rather severe penalties for eating horse meat? A fair amount of energy in the early Middle Ages went into keeping the horse off the Christian dinner table, helping to draw a line of distinction between the converted and those who remained pagans. Dining on horse was also one of the practices Anglo-Saxons gave up as they became Christians.

To return to the theme of postcolonial medievalisms more broadly, it does seem to me that Roger Sherman Loomis was in many ways the pioneer of the field. An American (and descendant of THE Roger Sherman), Loomis wrote a book (Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, 1927) that argued for the centrality of Wales, Scotland and Ireland in considering medieval high culture. No big deal these days, perhaps, when we would never think of Arthur as anything but a British/Welsh hero, but Loomis's theory of Celtic origins was denounced by many, and with passion. After all, weren't the Celts little more than barbarians? Hadn't the elegant French -- true fathers of the West -- really been the inventors of Arthur, courtliness, forks, and everything else that is good in the world? Loomis's edited volume Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History (1959) -- along with his many other works -- were for their time the equivalent of today's postcolonial readings. True, there was a way in which such work -- especially as carried out by the numerous graduate students he trained at Columbia -- was too gentle, speaking mildly of "Irish influences on the Wife of Bath's Tale" and remaining blind to the violence, blood, and political maneuvering that enabled such "influence" to occur. Yet his vision of a wider, more polyglot Middle Ages and his focus on cultural mingling opened ways of viewing the period that are still being realized.


Karl Steel said...

I like your reading of Loomis, JJC. I’m also remembering my argument about dubiousness of the search for medieval foundations for a critical mode as resolutely anti-foundationalist as postcolonialism.

I don't think that's what you're doing here, though.

Cavaet lector: rather long

Some more on horseflesh, here paraphrasing material from the written but thing of rags and patches Chapter Four of the dissertation, with a slight poco flourish at the end:

Prohibitions of horseflesh are not uncommon during periods of conversion. Eighth-century Papal legates wrote back from England to complain about, among other things, the eating of this forbidden meat. Another eighth-century letter from Pope Zachery to Boniface (an Englishman proselytizing among the Germans) forbids the eating of hare, beaver, stork, crow, jackdaws, and, more influentially (or simply more typically), horses. Twelfth-century Norwegian laws condemn men who have sex with women who eat horseflesh. In the Irish hagiography, Moling turns horseflesh into mutton when pagans try to trick him into eating it. The penitentials tend to be less absolute; the usual phrase is “Equum non prohibet, tamen consuetudo non est” [Horseflesh is not forbidden, but neither is it customary].

That said, this prohibition persisted long after periods of conversion had ceased. It appears, for example, in a penitential by Robert Grosseteste, and, less formally, in Lydgate’s ‘Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Lamb,’ where the Goose sneers at the horse for being of no use in death: “A ded hors is but a fowle careyn, / The ayr infectyng, it is so corrumpable; / But a fatt goos whan it is newe slayn, / In disshis of gold, a morsel agreable” (ll. 204-7).

Initially, the prohibition may have been due to matters of religious conversion. Its persistence when this need no longer applied may simply be due to a matter of habit; but Grosseteste’s penitential suggests another motivation: “Si pauper pro necessitate carnem asini aut caballi manducaverit, non nocet; si canem iii. di paeniteat; si humanam carnem manducaverit, x an. paeniteat” [if a poor person eats the flesh of a horse or ass out of necessity, it is not harmful; if a dog, let the pauper do penance for three days; if the pauper has eaten human flesh, let him or her do ten years of penance].

Power is what distinguishes the sometimes edible horses of the poor from the largely inedible horses of the elite. The horses of the poor would have been used for labor to link the poor even more closely with the land with which they were already associated, whereas the horses of the elite signaled military and political might.

The other inedible domestic animals were carnivores: cats, predatory birds, and, especially, dogs. The two latter were also animals intimately associated with the monopolized legitimate violence of the elite. Inedible horses were classed among these animals; edible horses—so far as Grosseteste and a few others were concerned—were those animals classed among the other large, domestic herbivores. One horse was an animal of domination; one horse was the animal of the dominated.

The poco spin? In pre-Christian Northern Europe, horses were eaten, likely as a matter of course; but they were also eaten for religious/political/military purposes. I make this argument, rather gingerly, on the basis of three disparate pieces of evidence: the Gerald of Wales horse-eating story; the ritual mutilation of horses recorded in one of the eighth-century letters I cite above; and the practices of horse-burial in elite graves from the pre-Christian era in Northern Europe. With this in mind, the prohibition of horses served to bring the military cultures of the new Northern Christians to bear by disrupting meat-eating and animal magic integral to these people’s political and military imagination.

Rather than be cowed by this prohibition, the warriors seem to have, eventually, turned it on its head. The prohibition of horse-eating becomes a way to celebrate the very military culture (now, putatively, a Christian military culture) that had been the target of the prohibition in the first place. Where horse-eating had once been a site of sympathetic magic, now not eating horse functions similarly. Moreover, the preservation of the prerogatives of this military elite effected partially through making the flesh of their chosen animals taboo becomes a Christian imperative. Is this a moment of the Empire Writing Back? Is it, more complexly, a moment of Christian appropriation of the military culture it could not or did not want to eradicate?

J J Cohen said...

"Rather than be cowed by this prohibition ..." -- does that mean, "forced to munch cattle once horse nibbling is forbidden"?

Great stuff, Karl. The strategy that allows eating OR not eating to be part of the same identity formation makes much sense.

As to postcolonial theory and anti-foundationalism: you're right, of course. One of the things that bothered me about some of the reaction to Bruce Holsinger's Speculum article "Genealogies of Critique" was the sigh of relief discernable in its wake, as if the Subaltern Studies group's being influenced by medievalist work meant that medievalists now need not worry about using postcolonial theory. That was not Holsinger's argument at all, but I think it sums up the way his article was taken by some scholars.

I'd point out that (1) Subaltern Studies is but one component of the heterogeneous field that now gets called postcolonial theory, (2) English India tends to be over-privileged in English Departments for obvious reasons, but it doesn't necessarily furnish the most productive models for rethinking the Middle Ages, and (3) even if no scholar working in postcolonial theory had ever read anything written by a medievalist, the importance of postcolonial theory to medieval sudies would remain undiminished. And that leads us back to Karl's stress upon remaining "resolutely anti-foundationalist" in our musings on the fields' relatedness.

With all that in mind, I wouldn't advance the argument that Roger Sherman Loomis was a founding father (even if his great-great-grandfather literally was). It was more that I wanted to make the usual mediavalist argument that the present doesn't come ex nihilo, and much of the work that we're doing that seems so very new actually builds upon projects initiated long ago (even as it transforms such projects, sometimes radically).

Karl Steel said...

Oh, the cow thing. Harh. I'll have to go back and check the diss. If that's there too, I'll send that pun into the outer darkness, where there's wailing (whaling?) and gnashing of yummy, yummy ribs.

The next bit is not only too obvious to say, it's also been said a hundred times already. I seem to recall you already covering this in the preface to your Poco MA, which I have on my shelves, or Holsinger in the Speculum piece. I could check it, but I'm not really in a 'getting up' kind of mood right now.

So: strikes me--at least, it strikes me because of my own initial hesitations at using the insights of contemporary postcolonial theory in medieval studies--that there's a distressing 'zero sum' misapprehension at work in some of the nervousness around medievalists nowadays self-consciously using poco, namely, the misapprehension that when we do our work, we diminish the interventionist work of our colleagues who are doing work with the 'Global South.' The work of our colleagues might conceivably save or ameliorate lives in those regions; our work, even as it usefully kicks the legs out from under homogeneous national/racist genealogies, isn't going to do much good for the medieval Welsh, Jews, Irish, or, indeed, peasants, women, and pagan warriors we study.

But why should theoretical models be thought a limited resource? It's not as if there's some well of delicious Bhabha that we're emptying whenever we give Gerald of Wales another [insert appropriate, but not too heavy-handed, metaphoric verb here]. Is the (possibly imagined) begrudgingness I sense due to apparent cheapening of the work our non-medieval colleagues by using it where it can (likely) do no good?

I suppose the use of Holsinger, or your RSL, or other stuff, is that we medievalists don't just get to "use" poco. We can do it too, and have been for some time. It's not that we're springing on poco in the way that we sprang, say, on poststructuralism. Poco is our theory because post-19th century medievalism has been very sensitive, at its best, to local conditions and anti-homogeneous narratives.

And so I've arrived back where I started, with insights made 5 or years ago. Hurrah for me!