Monday, May 08, 2006

Medieval cruise of death


As those of you who are attending the Fifteenth Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society know, one of the special events this year is a twilight cruise around Manhattan in the World Yacht Princess. Something more than a floating version of the infamous Kalamazoo medievalist dance, the cruise promises award winning jazz, swing dancing, food and unlimited booze.

But before you purchase your ticket to this aqueous revel, consider this: doesn't this luxury ship stuffed with partying Chaucerians have all the makings of a really bad disaster film? Forget Poseidon Adventure, Titanic or even Snakes on a Plane. I have visions of the Wreck of the World Yacht Princess, in which young scholars throw decorum to the wind and desperately deploy senior colleagues as flotation devices. Think of how much arcane knowledge could perish.

Then again, think of how many jobs would open for today's graduate students.

So, in honor of my vision of medievalist catastrophe, I offer this commentary on a disaster narrative from the Middle Ages. It was supposed to appear in my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain, but (prolix fellow that I am) I had to cut this and much else to get the thing down to size. Without further ado, then the Sinking of the White Ship; or, The Titanic of the Middle Ages.

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Things Fall Apart
The twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury embraced his dual Norman and English heritage, proclaiming it the key to a balanced understanding of the perturbed English past. From his evident pride in "having the blood of both nations in my veins" (History of the English Kings 3.Preface), it is tempting to conclude that post-Conquest Norman versus English antagonism was coming rapidly to an end by the time he wrote. Yet William's narration of a tragic event of 1120 offers a glimpse of the anxiety that circulated beneath his confident embrace of mixed blood and middle paths.

When the White Ship capsized crossing the channel to England, lost to the nocturnal sea were not only King Henry I's only legitimate son, but also the communal dream of England passing peacefully to an heir. Henry had arranged for the men of England and Normandy to bind themselves formally to prince William five years earlier, a public proclamation that the throne would finally move smoothly from father to son rather than wobble under the stress of another interfamily contest. No wonder that that the young man was held to be spes Angliae, "the hope of England" (5.419). The expression refers to a prophecy made by Edward the Confessor on his deathbed, in which the kingdom of England was figured as a maimed tree awaiting restoration of an absent branch (2.227). Henry's marriage to Matilda meant that William carried in his veins the revered bloodline of Alfred the Great. William's accession to the throne would restore England to its pre-conquest wholeness, repairing the historical chain ruptured after Edward's death.

The loss of Prince William, as sudden as it was unexpected, stunned England. The sinking of the White Ship captured the imagination of writers in Britain and abroad, resulting in no less than seven extant accounts. C. Warren Hollister aptly compares it to the loss of the Titanic, a maritime disaster that similalrly came to symbolize the passing of an age. The shipwreck at Barfleur was recognized almost immediately as marking the end of the dynasty founded by William the Conqueror in 1066, a brief line of Norman kings composed of a father and two quarrelsome sons. Likely to end with it would be the long calm that under Henry had finally held the realm. True, Henry's reign was steeped in blood and violence, but only when considering the whole of Britain. While the Welsh, Scots and Irish endured frequent bellicose action, England was relatively unperturbed. The English people enjoyed a special affection from their king, something that could not be said during the reign of his father or brother. Henry's first child, Robert, was the son of an English woman, born when Henry was only twenty. Relationships with other women of English blood followed, producing numerous children of mixed blood to whom Henry appears to have been an attentive father. After ascending to the throne and marrying Matilda, Henry's anglophilia earned him and his wife the mocking names Godric and Godgifu at the francophone court. Yet whereas William the Conqueror's bastardy had posed no insurmountable block to his coronation, by the time Henry became king illegitimate children were barred from succession. Robert, despite all his accomplishments, could never replace the dead William. Queen Matilda had passed away in 1118. Desperate to produce a legitimate son, Henry remarried in 1121, but it quickly became clear that Adeliza, the teenaged queen, and the king, now in his fifties, were not going to have offspring.

William of Malmesbury completed the first version of his monumental History of the English Kings about six years after William drowned, and finished a major revision the year Henry died. Perhaps with the uncertainty of the realm's future in mind, he declared of the White Ship that nulla umquam fuit nauis Angliae tantae miseriae, "No vessel that ever sailed brought England such disaster" (5.419). England, it seemed in both 1126 and 1135, was again facing the deeply troubling questions about historical continuity and collective identity that the two king Williams and Henry had striven so energetically to resolve – as had, in fact, William of Malmesbury himself in undertaking to write the History of the English Kings. No wonder the foundering of the vessel resonated with such melancholy for its medieval historians. The event catalyzed some of William's most powerful writing.

William's portrait of the shipwreck is imbued with both classical gravitas and searing horror. The prince is depicted as full of confidence in both himself and his future, having been indulged with "all the sweets of kingship except the name of king" by his doting father. The scions of noble families who join William on the White Ship are merry youngsters in search of frolic, while the exuberant rowers are filled with both drink and song. William of Malmesbury's Latin is magnificent here, by turns frantic and achingly sad, setting bits of Virgil's Aeneid adrift in a swell and crash of vivid prose:

Erat enim nauis optima, tabulatis nouis et clauis recenter compacta. Itaque ceca iam nocte iuuentus sapientiae indiga simulque potu obruta nauem a littore impellunt. Volat illa pennata pernitior harundine et crispantia maris terga radens imprudentia ebriorum impegit in scopulum, non longe a littore supra pelagus extantem. Consurgunt ergo miseri et magno clamore ferratos contos expediunt, diu certantes ut nauem a rupe propellerent; sed obsistebat Fortuna, omnes eorum conatus in irritum deducens. Itaque et remi in saxum obnixi crepuere concussaque prora pependit. Iamque alios undis exponebat, alios ingressa per rimas aqua enecabat, cum eiecta scafa filius regis excipitur.

They had a splendid ship, provided with new planking and nails. It was already night and pitch dark, when those young hotheads, drunk as well as foolish, put out from shore. The ship sped swifter than a feathered arrow, and skimming the sea's curling top, she struck, through the carelessness of her besotted crew, a rock projecting from the surface not far from the shore. Hapless souls, they jumped to their feet and in a babel of shouting unship iron-shod poles for a long struggle to push their vessel off the rock; but Fortune was against them, and brought to naught all their endeavors. So 'the oars smashed against the crags, fast hung the battered prow.' Already some were being washed overboard, and others drowned by the water that came in through the cracks, when they got off a boat with the king's son in it. (5.419)

Prince William decides to turn back and save his drowning half-sister Matilda, whose cries echo through the night. As he returns to the ship a mob (multitudine) "jumped at once in this boat, and she was swamped, and took them altogether to the bottom." Only one man escapes, an agrestis ("peasant, country fellow"), and William would have us believe that this artfully rendered visualization of marinal catastrophe comes from his eyewitness report (totius tragediae actum expressit). That Prince William's body was never recovered, allowing no funeral, no tomb, no closure, made the loss all the more profound.

"The hopes of all men were lifted as to a tower's top, when all was thrown into confusion by the mutability of human things" (tam omnium spes in speculam erectas confudit humanae sortis uarietas, 5.419). Tracing an intimate connection between Normandy and England, this craft foundering in a dark sea was weighted down not just by its three hundred revelers but, in his retrospective narration of the event, the dashed hopes of its historian, thunderstruck that by some perverse turn of fate the ship's cargo of certainty, stability and continuity never arrived on English shores. The History of the English Kings strives to connect the glorious English past to its post-conquest history, attempting to render a perturbed present more certain. The sinking of the White Ship once more severed the chain aligning the past, with its providential momentum and progressive teleology, to a secure and predictable future. Everything was in doubt.

10 comments:

JKW said...

Jesus Christ, JJ. I've been recruited to help the band set up on this boat, and now I'm having nightmares of this same boat being skippered by the drunken captain of the Exxon Valdez. I'll be sure to pack a life-jacket with my copy of the Riverside Chaucer.

J J Cohen said...

You're thinking about this all wrong, JKW. Here is your golden opportunity to ensure that the world of medieval studies opens its doors wide to you. All you need to do is (1) sabotage the ship under cover of helping the band set up, (2) finish your diss. very quickly, (3) feel the joy as tenure track job after tenure track job opens up in the wake of the Princess Wreck.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh god. My undergrad U in NYC had freshman orientation and senior week events on the Circle Line and let me tell you: there's nothing worse than a party you can't leave. Forget watery deaths -- what's worse is living through the thing. I mean, seriously, what if the band stinks? What if they run out of libations? What if you can't get away from someone you don't particularly like?

The horror. The horror.

Karl Steel said...

Nice piece.

I do wonder about the 'double identity' thing, as it seems that two identities are too few and that this fewness (er) helps limit how confused the Normans and the various Norman/Welsh, Norman/English, Norman/Etc. would be about their identities in their new formally (only) English Kingdom. It's of use to these groups (Conquerors, resistance, and those "in between") to imagine that 1066 found only one group to push aside or assimilate (w/in non-Celtic Britain), but this understanding of the ethnic composition of England means not only forgetting the Danes and other Scandinavian settlers but also imagining the pre-Conquest English themselves as homogeneous: which I doubt they were.

Thus, by dividing his blood into that of only two peoples William gains a kind of mastery over multiple identities by reducing these identities to the nice structures of opposition and genealogy. But this structure is facile in comparison to whatever (why not?) rhizomic Insular identities he might have imagined instead.

However if the Normans had not imagined only a single group to push aside, if the Normans had not also imagined themselves also as a single group (which they were not), they could neither have succored themselves by having only a single past and gens to master nor could they have imagined themselves simply stepping into the place of the English to keep alive the project of being a single people pushing out against the Island's old Celtic inhabitants.

Now, it seems to me that the Anglo-Norman Lai d'Haveloc, whose Danish hero affiliates with the English against a nearly absent Arthur, presents a brilliant countertext to the merely doubled identities of William, of Geoffrey of M., etc. because whenever I try to get a handle on its identities (as it's been thrumming in the back of my head since I read it on Sunday), I can't get them to stay put.

Now you may have already dealt with all this! I don't know. I tried to buy your most recent book for plane reading, but those creeps at Kzoo shut down the book stalls at Sunday noon, which is of course when the last Sunday session ends. That's what I get for holding off on my decision-making: so I'll mailorder it. Sad story ends: now.


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Per JJC's suggested catastrophe: but there's always the chance that many departments would be just as happy to finally be rid of us and they’ll fill up our old positions with, I don’t know, Pychnon scholars!

Bardiac said...

You know, if the ship goes down, a BUNCH of young medievalists will celebrate wildly. (Did everyone else use to have fantasies of legionaires' [sp?] disease hitting an MLA hotel the way I did when I was on the market?)

J J Cohen said...

If the ship does go down, we will all blame JKW and what he loaded onboard along with the band equipment.

No job will open at GW, though, because I'm not cruising. Sorry, folks.

J J Cohen said...

And in reply to Karl's post: I agree completely that the paucity of possible identifications for writers who knew the compundedness of their own blood was constricting. It is fascinating that origin myths -- with the exception of that of the Normans -- tended to be reductive and single-voiced. It really does seem a case of fetishism, as in "I know very well that the world is multiplicitous and impure, but all the same ...."

Would love to hear more about Haveloc and its identity imaginings, esp. as it rleates to England's Danish kings and Scandinavian interminglings.

Karl Steel said...

The Lai d’Haveloc concerns the son of the dead King of Denmark who is raised in exile in Lincolnshire and is so unaware of his royal destiny that he cannot understand why he emits a (royal) sweet-smelling flame from his mouth at night (I saw a nice paper partially about the ME version at Kzoo, which is what inspired me to read this one). Havelock eventually reclaims Denmark and then returns with his Breton wife, Argentille, to reclaim her Lincolnshire inheritance: it is here that he finally settles. The story has its immediate origins in the post-conquest historiography of Gaimar, whose Estoire des Engleis foregrounds this story because to flatter (?) his Lincolnshire patroness. The focus of the Lai remains just as local; unlike Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, the Lai makes no claims to a Greater British Empire stretching from Ireland to the gates of Rome.

Its further peculiarities:

Language: Its French is not Anglo-Norman but rather Continental French likely belonging to a recent immigrant. The earliest recorded instance of “Havelock” is in Cornwall, while his other name, Cuaran, links him to a tenth-century Danish King of Dublin and York, Olaf Sihtricson, whose nickname it was. The Lay generally translates Cuaran as “scullion,” as this is Havelock’s task for a while before he comes into his royal inheritance. But at one point—when Havelock returns to Grimsby with his wife—he’s told that Cuaran is the name his foster father gave him to keep him hidden from the Danish usurper. We never get told the Havelock’s actual secret (false?) name.

Gens: Havelock’s a Dane. His wife is a Breton with connections to Brittany that seem as strong in its own way as Havelock’s to Denmark (when Argentille’s foster-father (himself an usurper) is trying to decide what to do with her, he considers making her a nun in Brittany, i.e., sending her to a "home" that is a far-off place of exile). Where are the “English”? Nowhere. There’s no sense in this work of any people to whom the whole of the Island should belong.

Class (side issue, but still weird): Havelock’s foster father, Grim, peaceably founds the village of Grimsby by attracting settlers through his prowess in fishing and salting. Later, Havelock brags of Grim as a “rich man.” Also, Havelock decides to engage the usurper, Odulf, in single combat, not for glory but to spare the lives of the many common people who had come to his aid. Also, the Lai’s prologue seems to direct it at the “uncouth” who are in need of edification. Note the story of the founding of Grimsby, which must be a remnant in memory of organically developed Danish settlements on England’s Eastern Shores that complicates any simple tales of Scandinavian slaughter and incursion.

The story primarily seems about Insular Danish matters (but also with a toe kept in the Danish homeland), but why should we have a work written in Continental French in Britain about a Scandinavian King who marries a British Breton Princess whose hero's final success is the consolidation of a Danish kingdom centered on Lincoln and Lindsey? This story is also one in which a Danish lord gains an English inheritance through marriage to someone whose roots are themselves on the Continent. Also: Why should its author take the trouble to set it in the time of Arthur, but mention Arthur only as a King who demanded tribute from the Danes and so slew (or inspired Odulf to slay) to rightful King of Denmark, Havelock’s father Gunter? And why should the work survive only in 2 14th c. mss (or is that normal for Insular French?)

I’m working here only w/ the Judith Weiss translation (from the Everyman The Birth of Romance anthology), and while her notes are good, I don’t have the French. But even with only a translation you can see why the work seems so weird, so utterly different from the kinds of work being produced close to Wales. The Lai is local, whereas all that Marcher material is so international in scope. Why?

J J Cohen said...

Karl, your post on Haveloc is so rich that it ahs taken me a while to get back to it. Everything rests on that last question: how can a continental French language work written to celebrate -- at least in part, from all the Grimsby stuff -- the founder of a provincial village, a work in which the interests are (to use William Chester Jordan's phrase) intensely local, despite its international vectors, how can such a work be located in some kind of canon of English(?) British (?) romances? It seems to deafeat every expectattion we have for how nationalism should work.

I haven't taught the lai in a long time, probably six or seven years. The last time I did it was in that same Weiss translation as part of an undergraduate "Postcolonial Middle Ages" course. I was attempting to emphasize the ways in which regional ior local interests can be thoroughly international without being national or nationalistic. A similar point could be made about Margery Kempe, I suppose (she's never really English until some nasty German makes fun of her tail; I don't believe she ever even mentions the king, other than to note that his death had some parochial effect that was far more important to her). This was a woman who travelled the world, and yet no English place looms like East Anglia, like Lynn.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the response, but I absolve you of any sense of obligation!

Your comments about international/local concerns that just leap over the national that we think should intervene between these two categories are so interesting. I'd never noticed that about Kempe, but good lord, that's good stuff.

It seems to deafeat every expectation we have for how nationalism should work.

Absolutely! Has anyone written on this? (not that I would have time to!)

I suppose what else is so peculiar about the Lai de Grimsby (might as well call it that) is that its local concerns make "international" leaps into places that are "nations" or "kingdoms" or what have you. Grimsby/Lincolnshire may be strickly local polities, but the Denmark and Britanny in which the Lais heroes have roots are not local at all but are rather play the role of the sort of large "national" space that Britain or England normally do. The "national" imagination for this Lai finds form only overseas. Weird!