Yesterday my graduate seminar read, along with the Geary and Davis pieces I mentioned , Asser's Life of King Alfred. Today, I offer my meditation on why this great king needed to keep his medicine chest stocked with Preparation H.
Medieval people were fascinated by composite monsters like centaurs and griffins, as well as by corporal transformations like the Irish werewolves which intrigued Gerald of Wales, the princess imprisoned in dragon's flesh described by Mandeville, the snake-woman Mélusine in the romance Huon de Bordeux. Such metamorphoses find inspiration in Ovid, the Roman poet of mutability who was obsessed by what might be called possible bodies, bodies whose seeming solidity melts, flows, resubstantiates into unexpected configurations that violate the sacred integrity of human somatic form. Yet the identity machines which possible bodies construct are not reserved to fantastic creatures and humans transformed into estranging flesh. Fabliaux grant the body an astonishing autonomy of organs. Le Débat du con et du cul stages a lively conversation between a vagina and its neighbor, the anus, while in Les Quatre sohais Saint Martin, pricks (vits) and cunts (cons) proliferate, transforming every inch of the dermis into an obscenely erogenous zone. There is something not quite human about these bodies, with their refusal to respect the boundaries that are supposed to limit their form and to emplace agency within a controlling and singular subjectivity, a soul. Even more surprising, however, is that this inhuman body can as easily be found in chansons de geste, romance, manuals of chivalry, hagiography, mystical revelation, scientific texts, crusading propaganda, history. The bodies which populate these medieval texts are discursively constructed in ways which are inescapably specific to histories behind their production and dissemination, serving particular and often readily identifiable cultural needs. This historical construction, however, never fully captures the flesh in all its possibility, especially as that body escapes the confines of somber individuality and connects itself via some "circuit of intensity" with other bodies, other worlds.
Take, for example, the case of King Alfred's hemorrhoids.
Despite a fire which consumed the single surviving medieval manuscript, a remarkable biography of Alfred survives in transcription. Originally composed in 893 by Asser, a Welshman christened with a Hebrew name, the text now known as the Life of King Alfred demonstrates that the West Saxon monarch truly deserves the epithet "the Great" bestowed upon him by sixteenth century historians. Having been as a child anointed by no less an authority than Pope Leo (8), Alfred distinguished himself early in life by his love of books, poetry, and scholarship (23), the fixity of his religious faith (37), and his astounding success on the battlefield, especially when enormously outnumbered (passim). Not only did he eventually unite the disparate and factitious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against Viking invaders, Alfred also forced the submission of several Welsh kings and ensured that his court was an international center of learning and commerce. And -- Asser emphatically notes -- this exalted king was afflicted with various diseases, the most memorable of which was ficus, "piles" or "hemorrhoids." Alfred receives this painful ailment as a divine reward, sent at his own request to assist him in resisting carnal desire: "he contracted the disease of piles through God's gift; struggling with this long and bitterly through many years, he would despair even of life" (74). This boon of swelling and blood is eventually transmuted by God into an unspecified but "more severe illness" which remains with him to the end of his days. I am going to guess that for many readers a discussion of King Alfred's hemorrhoids seems distasteful, and for that reason I am probably better off not translating the safe Latin word ficus (literally meaning "fig," and more suggestive to contemporary ears of decorative houseplants than of the aching capillaries of a sanguineous anus). Yet Asser is working within an established tradition of hagiography within which bodily infirmity of any kind is taken as a special mark of sanctity. Saints like Guthlac and Cuthbert suffer terribly, and gratefully. Bede represents his beloved Pope Gregory's energetic output of texts in the face of frequent fevers, weakness, and "bowel trouble" as a special proof of the man's holiness (Ecclesiastical History II.1). Alfred, rex omnium britannie insulae christianorum (as Asser's dedication to his text reads), possesses a body that is at once regnal and saintly because it suffers. Ficus and the unnamed diseases which it later becomes are signs of spiritual strength, corporal signifiers that Alfred is powerful enough to triumph over the limitations of mere flesh.
Recurring hemorrhoids also suggest that Alfred's body does not quite belong to Alfred. Bruce Holsinger has detailed the sexual suggestiveness of ficus in the later Middle Ages, and it cannot be an accident that the illness which originates as anal hemorrhaging is divinely transmuted at Alfred's wedding feast, just as he enters into institutionalized heterosexuality. Even more suggestively, the narration of the original onset of Alfred's ficus is provocatively framed by repetitions of the same event, foreign invasion:
72. In that same year the Viking army, which had settled in East Anglia, broke in a most insolent manner the peace which they had established with Alfred.
[73-75. Narration of Alfred's ficus, bodily sufferings, marriage, children]
76. Meanwhile the king, amidst the wars and the numerous interruptions of this present life -- not to mention the Viking attacks and his continual bodily infirmities …
Chapter seventy-six opens by conjoining Viking incursions and Alfred's suffering body, making explicit the interlacement which the narrative implies in its sequencing of the five chapters as a whole. In case we readers are not astute enough to be surprised by the conjunction of hemorrhoids and Vikings here, moreover, Asser cheerfully repeats it later, this time adding a reference to the thief crucified next to Jesus, ensuring that the passage resonates with religious overtones as well:
91. King Alfred has been transfixed by the nails of many tribulations … he has been plagued continually with the savage attacks of some unknown disease, such as he does not have even a single hour of peace in which he does not either suffer from the disease itself or else, gloomy dreading it, is not driven almost to despair. Moreover, he was perturbed -- not without good reason -- by the relentless attacks of foreign peoples, which he continually sustained from land and sea without any interval of peace. What shall I say of his frequent expeditions and battles against the Vikings and the unceasing responsibilities of government?
Like the ravages of ficus, the Vikings are -- quite literally -- a pain in the royal ass. Their threat to the fragile coherence of a united England needs to be overstated by Asser because in the face of that threat Alfred's ascendancy and permanence as king of the majority of the island cannot be questioned. Asser describes Alfred not simply as ruler of Wessex (rex Occidentalium Saxonum) but with the grandiose title Angul-Saxonum rex. The appellation is unlikely to raise eyebrows today, since the word "Anglo-Saxon" has become an accepted term within the critical vocabulary for describing this era. Yet as Keynes and Lapidge are quick to point out, the ambitiously compound royal appellation which Asser employs became current only in the 880s, the same decade which saw the Viking capture of London and its Alfredian restoration, the subsequent submission of the insular kings to Alfred, and the stabilization of the Danelaw (Alfred the Great 227). "King of the Anglo-Saxons" is not Asser's invention, but is nonetheless a title of quite recent vintage and obvious political utility. Angul-Saxonum rex performs an important suture. Over and against the Viking menace (a threat predicated on rendering as alien as possible peoples who were in fact ethnically continuous with the "Anglo-Saxons"), the collective force of the compound noun Angul-Saxonum gathers a fragmented variousness into an imagined community. This new thing, this kingdom that can suddenly conceptualize itself as a corporate entity rather than a scattering of smaller affiliations, is a body afflicted with ficus, with Vikings that cause pain and bleeding and who menace the integrity of the whole, but who also precipitate that unity into heroic consciousness. In a move which conflates the island, its people, and their king, a move which concatenates history, the sacralizing power of religion, realignments of the past, and the eruption of new futures, Asser opens the regnal body to a becoming-nation, probes its most private regions, transforms its every affliction into movements of armies and a war of the flesh against itself.
Alfred's body in Asser's account could be read as mere agitprop for the emergent West Saxon hegemony, in which case the Life of Alfred would be a narrative reducible to a simple and definitive purpose. Considering the recurrence in Old English poetry of prosopopoeia, considering that even a jewel which likely contains a contemporary portrait of the Angul-Saxonum rex himself can declare "ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" ("Alfred ordered me fashioned") -- considering, that is, that even objects were alive in the ninth century, and still speak today -- we should probably hesitate before rendering the text so inert, so small. In Asser's conjunction of Alfred, his hemorrhoids, the creation of community, Viking incursions, marital relations, disseminations of texts, there is something which resists diminution into mere context. These heterogeneous components form an identity machine full of potential for the reconceptualization of somaticity, unlikely to be constrained by reformation into a singular, larger form. The body of venerable King Alfred is, in Asser's textualization, not so far removed from a babewyn, from those monsters of hybridity who populate the margins of illuminated manuscripts. In the Luttrell Psalter (fol. 175r.), the sober Latin of Psalm 98 is framed by two remarkable figures: an avine body topped by the crowned and dour face of a queen, and a sphinx-like animal bearing a bishop's severe visage and an ornate mitre, a doubled becoming-animal which maps the plasticity of corporeal form. The haunches of the sphinx dissolve into a long, curlicued tail which disperses its bestial form into pendulant clusters of thistles, while the serpentine caudal appendage of the bird-queen creeps with sensuously curls of ivy inward, outward, downward. The babewyns scatter the human into fragments of fauna and flora, opening the flesh to animal and vegetal transformation. Medieval people did not simply fantasize such corporeal hybridity, moreover, but experimented with their own flesh. Susan Crane has described the ritual of Maying as a kind of becoming-plant ("Maytime in Late Medieval Courts" 174). Hobby-horse plays, mummings, village rituals enacted at the changing of the seasons (May Day, Plough Monday, Christmas, New Year) engendered miraculous transfigurations, a surrender of the burden of humanity to fantastic new skins made of hides and painted cloth, to masks concatenated from animal skulls, agricultural tools, domestic objects, even from vegetables like turnips. Half human stags, horses, calves and a plenitude of other hybrid monsters were familiar as both images and as bodies in the process of becoming something other than themselves.
[The above is excerpted from my book Medieval Identity Machines, where you will find a version with proper footnotes. I think that last paragraph goes a long towards offering an answer to Eileen's tough query about why people don cute animal costumes and inhabit alien sexualities or (as Karl's video made clear) gyrate to NSync.]