Thursday, May 18, 2006

Epilogue: In medias res

As promised, behold a short excerpt from Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles . Because there is no better place to begin than the end, here is the epilogue, cheekily entitled In medias res.

Thomas of Monmouth, for those who might not know this minor star in the pantheon of twelfth-century Latin historiographers, was the writer who first recorded what is known as the blood libel, the belief that Jews murder Christians as part of their Pesach ritual. In my book I explore the motivations Thomas might have had in transforming some fellow residents of Norwich into bloodthirsty monsters. I connect the flow of blood that Thomas envisions in his Life of Saint William(Thomas really is the medieval equivalent of Stephen King) to the turmoil that the Norman Conquest brought to Norwich, a city that was devastated and then reconfigured by its new owners.

Despite the histories of hatred in which Thomas and the other authors I examine in my book participated, I attempted to end my book on an affirmative note.

The Norwich reconfigured by the Normans and described by Thomas of Monmouth in his Life of St William was a hybrid space, a difficult middle. In some ways the city would have been easier for its own residents to comprehend when the difference between peoples had been as lucid as the language that spilled from a particular set of lips. By the time Thomas arrived, the powerful lived and worked in architectures that, having only recently been completed, must still have seemed alien to residents with long memories. In these same buildings, however, were held convocations like diocesan synods that gathered together anglophone and francophone populations, the affluent and the impoverished, married priests and celibate monks, peoples with long and with brief Norwich histories. French speakers were no doubt slowly adopting English; native families were christening their children with French names. Economic and social disparities still sundered the city's populations. Friction caused by competition and hauteur is amply evident in the Life. Yet the former Normans and the native English had clearly interpenetrated in Norwich, creating a civic milieu that, even if turbulent, was also on the brink of forming an enlarged community. The Jews, transformed by Thomas and his supporters into monsters, could transport away the troubling power of lingering difference, and allow a hybrid space to believe in its unifying purity.

The Jews as represented by the Life of Saint William are rather similar to the Britons in Bede's Ecclesiastical History : an inimical race whose evident similarities must be denied in order to purge a collective identity of troubling heterogeneity -- in order, really, to render that identity substantial, possible. The first chapter of this book examined how medieval authors passionately detailed the customs, laws, histories, and other cultural and corporeal phenomena that were supposed to separate peoples into natural groups. Because these various markers were mutable, their power to differentiate never long endured. The perennial human tendency to engender a shared sense of community through definition against other peoples, moreover, meant that those who found themselves between belongings faced great difficulty in attempting to articulate their identity. Thus William of Malmesbury, Norman and English blood uneasily admixed in his historian's body, dreamt hybridity through marvelous figures like witches, conjoined twins, a Saracen-stained pope, men transformed into animals. Geoffrey of Monmouth composed what must be medieval Britain's most deeply ambiguous text, a revisionist history that confidently offered a novel vision of past, then quietly and thoroughly eroded it. Gerald of Wales spent his life seeking a vocabulary sufficient for expressing his multifarious identity. Like William of Malmesbury, he found a strikingly visual lexicon for this hybridity in the unnatural mixing of human and animal, in strange bodies marked in the flesh by their divergent histories and headed towards futures for which no precedent existed. William of Norwich was in a way just such a hybrid body himself, suspended between worlds. Installed in the cathedral as a saint, he was supposed to bring about a unity that had long escaped the city, but Norwich's postcolonial legacy was not so easily interred.

This book has attempted to move between the world as keenly divided by authors like Bede and Thomas and the lived experience of writers who dwelled in the intermediacies such division foments. William of Malmesbury's historical narration arrives at an almost insurmountable obstacle at the Norman conquest because, despite William's protestations to the contrary, a synthetic point of view was not truly possible at the time he wrote. Geoffrey of Monmouth seems serenely untroubled by this same state of affairs, bequeathing a text that multiplied difficulties rather than attempted to resolve them. Early in his life Gerald of Wales wrote with confidence, believing that his compound identity could bridge a riven world. When rivals at the English court used his compoundedness to bar him from privilege, however, Gerald turned with increasing bitterness against the milieu that he had sought to master. His last days were spent in a kind of self-imposed exile in Lincoln, revising his youthful texts, multiplying their marvels and perversions. What all of these authors shared was their Christian Latinity, granting them access to an international community of educated and powerful men. Like Bede in the eighth century, William, Geoffrey and Gerald never seemed to worry that their words, even when troubled or beleaguered, might not be heard or endure.

I would like to end this book by briefly mentioning a voice that likewise survives from medieval Britain, but that possessed no such reason to be confident of future comprehension. Meir ben Elijah of Norwich was the thirteenth-century author of about twenty-one Hebrew poems. Writing in those difficult days when the persecution of the English Jews was moving towards its crescendo of expulsion, Meir wondered if God might have forgotten his chosen people. His poem "Oyevi bim’eirah tiqqov" ["Put a curse on my enemy"] is filled with despair, a dilating catalogue of hardship and distress.* Meir wrote in the wake of martyrdoms and violent persecutions. Many of his fellow Jews had been lost to conversion, while others had embraced a passionate but fruitless messianism. Every declaration of the dimming of the world, however, is met in Meir's poem by the possibility of daybreak to come: "When I hoped for good, evil arrived, yet I will wait for the light" (5). Indeed, the biblical refrain of the work is the line "You are mighty and full of light, You turn darkness into light." Its seventeen repetitions in the fifty-one line composition have an incantatory quality, washing around the poem's long litany of suffering with a countercurrent of breaking futurity.

"Oyevi bim’eirah tiqqov" is temporarily rather odd. Its recitation is clearly meant to follow the havdalah, the ceremonial end of the Sabbath, a transition that is typically seen as a movement from light to the gathering darkness that ends the sacred day -- exactly opposite to the movement of this poem in which light pierces gathering gloom. Meir was the poet of a community at the edge of oblivion. He penned lines that have lost their faith in the present, that express confusion about why God should allow his people to be so assailed ("The words of the seer are garbled, for the foe has mocked your children," 7; "Have you forgotten to be gracious, my God?" 19). The poem is also, somehow, a record of impossible hope. Its words belong to an author lost to history. They are composed in a language shortly to be exterminated in Britain. Yet "Oyevi bim’eirah tiqqov" arrives eight hundred years later to declare what it is like to be stuck in a difficult and darkening middle, longing for a radiant end. I let Meir ben Elijah come last in this book because it seems to me that he knew as well as any medieval writer the suffering that humans inflict upon each other in the name of creating community. His is the voice of someone who was almost made to vanish, but who somehow after all this time possesses a voice that still resounds.

* Susan L. Einbinder has produced an excellent edition and translation of the poem, from which I quote: "Meir b. Elijah of Norwich: Persecution and Poetry among Medieval English Jews," Journal of Medieval History 26 (2000) 145-62.

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