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.I promised to share a few more. A mere three months later, I do so.
The first is taken from the chapter that became "Acts of Separation," an overview of how medieval writers sorted the intractable impurities of the world into the neat little boxes of race. The original version of the chapter began with a fabulation based on a case from the early thirteenth century: a group of Norwich Jews were accused of kidnapping a five year old boy and circumcising him. His father, the physician Benedict, was most likely a convert to Christianity, and the circumcision and renaming may have been performed to reclaim the child as a Jew. Interestingly, the men who undertook the ritual seem to have been confident that the king would side with them in a case that eventually cost many of its participants their lives.
A Vision of Blood, 1230
Jurnepin of Norwich sat by the river 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 in the streets of Norwich. That name, given by the followers of the Hanged One, had been blotted out forever. He was now Jurnepin, a circumcised Jew. 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.
The second story inviolves a boy about whom very little is know, other than that at a certain point his name was legally changed -- at his request -- from Tostig to William. I was attempting to embody within a small story the strange ardor of the conquered English for taking upon themsleves a Norman patina.
Whitby, c. 1110
Tostig dreamt of storms all night, tempests formed of words. When he was five years old Tostig and his father had been caught by a sudden gale, blown across a blackened sea. Now he was amid the wind and waves again, alone. In the rush of air and heave of brine he could hear his name, over and over, a taunt in a language that could barely wrap its mouth around its sounds. His name became alien syllables, blown to pieces in a tempest's change.
Tostig had been the purest melody when whispered by his mother, when breathed, even in exasperation, by his dad. Now each time he walked the cliffs to see if the fishing boats had returned, or strolled the docks to look at the goods from London and from abroad, he was sure to be jeered as Tostig the Dane. His friends pronounced the words as if they were fresh from Norway. They never tired of the joke.
Tostig's grandfather, his namesake, had once taken him at tide's ebb to a secret cove. Above its rocks Tostig saw the monastery, the very place where a cowherd named Cædmon once composed an English poem about the creation of the world, a poem that people in Whitby sometimes still sang. Grandfather Tostig told him that his own grandfather – also named, of all things, Tostig -- had a happy career raiding the villages along the North Sea. One night he was separated from the rest of his party. He huddled until dawn on the wet sand of the cove, wondering if he would ever find his kinsmen and their boats. He wandered into Whitby the next day, and never left. Yes, Tostig was descended from vikingar, pirates, but so were many of the families who lived hereabouts. It was just that these vikings had long ago become farmers, fishermen, ordinary.
Tostig hated his name. He begged his parents to change it, even if grandfather would be angry enough (as his father had claimed) to wake from the dead and walk. His parents had, at last, agreed. Tomorrow he would truly become Angelcynn, because tomorrow he would be known as William. It did not occur to Tostig that the name was not in fact English at all. A few decades ago Tostig was the more comfortable name to pronounce, while William was the kind of word a speaker in Whitby had to train a tongue around. None of this mattered to Tostig, never again to be Tostig the Dane, viking island in an Anglian sea.
William. A name as sweet as the breath of air with which it began, as melodious as the hum into which it dissolved. Hundreds of boys from every part of England were even now being christened with its dulcet sounds. So what if at the age of twelve Tostig was a little late in embracing this new destiny?
The last story involves another little boy, this one destined to become the famous Bede. Its title is James Campbell's description of Bede's native Northumbria (Essays in Anglo-Saxon History 29). The fabulation is based upon an episode in the Life of Ceolfrith that has traditionally been assumed to refer to the young Bede. During the devastating plague of 686, abbot Ceolfrith and a young boy (puerulus) are said to be the only survivors at Jarrow, where even in the wake of the devastation they continued to sing the psalms with their antiphons. Judith McClure and Roger Collins have argued that the Latin noun puerulus would not likely refer to the twelve year old Bede (see their introduction to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, xiii). Yet puerulus could indeed be used of a twelve year old in order to stress innocence and pathetic suffering in the face of traumatic events.
"At the Extremity of the Known World," c. 686
At the age of twelve Bæda was a veteran of monasteries. His kinsmen had delivered him to the monks of Wearmouth five years ago, a tearful boy. Now he had learned to love the cloister's solitude. Gone were the thoughts of rolling apples down the slype to see how many monks he could trip. Gone too were the plans he once entertained of composing red caricatures of his brethren in the pages of the bible he had been copying, though it did still amuse him to consider the nose he would have given Wulf.
Not long ago Bæda left Wearmouth for nearby Jarrow, a new monastery that wanted inhabiting. He accompanied its abbot Ceolfrith and twenty monks who had become twenty friends. Puerulus, the older men had called him, "little guy." At twelve the affectionate nickname did not fit him as well as it once had, but now that all the brothers who had spoken it lay dead, Bæda did feel like a small boy again. Only he and Ceolfrith remained. Two monks slumbered in the dormitory, two monks chanted the daily cycle of prayers, two monks persevered in the daily routine that kept Jarrow alive. The monastery had become too large, its stone too cold. The sound of his feet no louder than the briny drizzle, Bæda feared that he was becoming a ghost.
In his dreams he saw faces burning with fever. He had done what he could to ease their anguish, had carried bread and broth for dwindling appetites, water for thirst beyond endurance. Sometimes he relived the last moments of their lives, when shaking calmed, eyes stilled, warmth emptied. Washing corpses with cold water, he saw the patterns that blood forms under dead skin, cloudy stains that pool, blue and then yellow and then brown. The return to oblivious earth. What haunted Bæda most, what had settled poisonously in his stomach and would not be dislodged, was that monks were supposed to die filled with joy, rushing toward heaven's secure embrace. Cuthwin had been the worst, screaming against the ebb of life as if screaming alone could arrest his dissolution.
For three days Bæda drifted through the monastery, the world slowly fading. The sea sent cold mist drifting. The drip of water from the roof was for the boy the only reminder that time had not stopped. Then Ceolfrith suddenly brightened, and insisted that they no longer abbreviate the daily singing of the psalms. They would pray as if Jarrow's unity endured, and it would endure. So they again chanted psalms with anitiphons, this convent of two, and in that circulation of heavy Latin Bæda learned something he would carry with him for the rest of his life. Words are powerful enough to revivify the dead, to anchor the vanishing in life, to create from the broken past the stone-solid foundation of communities yet to come.
A few more to come.