How to begin?
William stared at the crisp blankness of the sheet, a topography of creases aching to become a world. In tiny furrows he found mountains, serpentine rivers, cities new and fallen to ruin, fens and piney woods to harbor monsters, an island yearning for the stability of borders. He wondered what Latin to trace across the page's folds, what rubrics he could make shimmer like so much blood on the skin.
That the vellum had once been a grazing, mewling beast thrilled William. It seemed a quotidian miracle, a proof the past endured. The dermis become a page presented him with a pockmarked map of possibility, a means to make his own voice echo long after his body had dried to dust. On this hide he would compose a lasting chronicle of kings and wars and national destiny, of heroes and sinners and strange portents. The contours of his words would restore to order a history broken by conquest and civil war.
Drops of red trickled from his pen, splattered the vellum. "Stercus," he muttered. It was the only Latin word he could think of filthy enough to express what a pain it was going to be to scrape the page clean and overwrite those crimson stains.
That little visualization of the monastic historian William of Newburgh at work c.1196 on his History of English Affairs was the original opening of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles [then called Stories of Blood: Monsters, Jews and Race in Medieval England]. Although it contains a faint verbal and thematic allusion to Vance Smith's book about the problems of beginning (The Book of the Incipit, a rich work that I had in mind as I began my own book), for the most part the little scene is the product of imagination. It was supposed to be replete with the themes of the book, but mainly declares why I write abstruse scholarly monographs rather than historical fiction.
Such italicized vignettes appeared regularly throughout the original manuscript, little flights of fancy that erupted from time to time from my sedate prose. I explained their presence as follows, but in fact I believe I had become infected by all the twelfth century Latin I was reading, and began to compose in a contemporary mode:
My previous books have attempted to work simultaneously in medieval literature and in what often gets called critical theory (a field, I would argue, more accurately and more simply described as philosophy). Stories of Blood marks a departure from this work in that much of the theorizing is conducted quietly, often below the level of direct quotation or even of footnote. This departure should not be read as a rejection. I am as committed to philosophically rigorous work as I ever have been, and would not have been able to formulate my argument without the help of theory, especially postcolonial theory. Yet I also feel that the time is right for medievalists to experiment with how they formulate their arguments, articulate their themes, convince their readers. It is time to essay rhetorical devices and generic shifts that can perhaps achieve something a predictable scholarly prose style will not. Each of my chapters therefore makes use of what I call fabulations. These brief, fictionalized, and experimental asides are meant to function like the strange moments that occur throughout twelfth-century historiography, moments when the sedate and scholarly course of the narrative is startled by an irruption of the marvelous, the monstrous, the new. As Monika Otter has made clear in her book Inventiones, such moments are not digressions from the texts that feature them but explorations in another register of the concerns animating those works. Thus Gerald of Wales "interrupts" his Journey Through Wales to narrate a story about a utopia of tiny men. This subterranean domain bears an uncanny resemblance to the lost world of Gerald's own childhood, and permits its narrator to mourn the Welshness he has rejected in himself in order to become a cleric who writes in Latin and a courtier who speaks in French. Although I worry that my own fabulations may strike readers as self-indulgent, overwritten, or simply extraneous, it nonetheless seems to me that, even should I fail badly in the attempt, it is worthwhile to allow the sources I have worked with here to imbue my text with their own imprint.
In the future I'll share a few more of these fabulations with you. They are quite amusing. For tonight, though, I'll end with the story that was supposed to instigate the critical apparatus of the book. It's ripped from the headlines c.1230, when a five year old boy was found wandering the banks of the River Wensum in Norwich. He had been involuntarily circumcised.
A Vision of Blood, 1230
Jurnepin of Norwich sat by the Wensum, crying. The swaying of the ships at dock, the gurgle of the silty water helped him think of something, anything, besides the ache. His leg was wet with blood. Yesterday the little boy had been a Christian named Odard, skipping rocks off muddy puddles. That name, given by the followers of the Hanged One, had been blotted out forever. He was now Jurnepin, circumcised and tearful. You must never eat pork again, Senioret told him as he prepared the knife. The stroke that had cut his foreskin had also excised his Christianity. The gates of heaven slammed shut, and left him in tears and blood among the Jews.
Benedict, Jurnepin's father, was a Christian convert. A high price, his friends had sneered, to belong to a community that hates us. Jurnepin had known their faces long before, had seen them glaring at his father as he made his physician's rounds. As a captive in Jacob's house, he caught their names in the flow of their familiar French: Leo, Deudone, Joppe, Elias, Mosse, Simon, Sampson, Isaac le Petit, Diaia le Cat. These men had their revenge on Benedict when Jacob and Senioret reclaimed his son. Once a Jew, always a Jew, they said. It was funny, Jurnepin had often heard the Christians repeating the same phrase, even when he and his dad were together in the cathedral. Were there some lines that just couldn't be crossed? Can a Breton ever become French, or a Welshman English? Can the leopard change its spots, or the Ethiopian his skin? Might a boy growing up in Yorkshire ever become as English as a Londoner? Must a Jew always remain a Jew?
Benedict had learned to praise in Latin the son of a God who was not supposed to have any sons. He had mastered all the local customs and assimilated to Norwich with a convert's zeal. Yet there was something in him and in his son that perhaps could not be changed, something that even now Jurnepin felt trickling along his cheeks, felt congealed along his thigh. At the age of five Jurnepin the Jew knew that race is born of trauma, race is born of blood.