Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What's real? Does what we do matter?

A fascinating and fraught discussion is unfolding in the comments for the Shock of Recognition post. Substantial commentaries by Eileen Joy and Anonymous in Austin debate what is at stake in what we choose to study and what we choose to do.

Check it out.

[update 6/1: Really, check it out. The exchange continues, and it is bracing. I henceforth bequeath my blog to Eileen Joy and Anonymous in Austin.]

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Eloquent silence

Quote of the day, again from Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew. I'm enjoying my reading of this book so much that I have been slow in moving through its pages. In my own work, I've thought quite a bit about medieval noise. Today I'd like to share an excerpt from Kruger's book on the eloquence of silence.

Kruger is examining the records of medieval debates staged between Christians and Jews, disputations which generically unfold as Christian triumphs over innate Jewish blindness. What do you do when you are a rabbi forced to enter such a performance as the speaker for all Jews, your role as loser given to you in advance? What can you say against an authority that has already judged you as deficient and wrong? Is it any surprise that the textual record will record repeatedly that "The Rabbi publicly confessed that he knew nothing more with which to respond"?
Such repeated descriptions of Jewish nonresponse in the Christian record of the disputation add up to a declaration of Christian triumph, and in such moments of self-silencing, we might read the rabbis as participating in their own erasure, in the moves to contain and reduce the Jewish embodiment put at center stage in the disputation.

But Jewish self-censorship and silence might also be read as resistance -- a refusal, increasing as the debate proceeds, to participate in a process over which the rabbis have no control. That is, silence may be one strategy for staying Jewish -- for the rabbis' maintaining an integrity as Jews -- in a situation where doing so by presenting honestly the varying and sometimes discordant traditions of Jewish interpretation or by strongly proclaiming one's beliefs seems increasingly impossible. (p. 200)

Or as Cicero once said, cum tacent clamant: when they are silent, they scream.

The Postmodern Beowulf

I've mentioned this new book in passing a few times on the pages of this blog. Here is a short excerpt from the preface that well captures the volume's ample ambition, followed by its table of contents. (Yes, the book has both a preface and a substantial introduction called "Liquid Beowulf" [which I've read and it is wonderful]. Eileen Joy must be a terribly prolix person).

Look for The Postmodern Beowulf this autumn via West Virginia University Press.

The attempt to restore historical complexity to our understanding of the past and its cultural forms, and to also show how Old English studies both practice and reformulate theory, suffices as a description of the project of The Postmodern Beowulf, which was initially born out of a desire to provide for students an anthology of “the best of” contemporary critical approaches to the poem and then later developed into a “casebook” that we hope more than amply demonstrates the ways in which Old English scholarship has debated, elucidated, practiced, historicized, and even developed theory in relation to the critical analysis of Beowulf. The book is divided into four sections—History/Historicism, Ethnography/Psychoanalysis, Gender/Identity, and Text/Textuality—that have been designed, not as much to represent specific movements within theory (such as deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, Lacanian analysis, queer studies, and the like), as to offer broad contextual fields of inquiry within which certain questions regarding history, culture, identity, and language have perdured over time (and in response to which questions the more narrowly-defined theoretical “schools” have arisen). This is not to say that specific theoretical approaches are not purposefully highlighted in the volume, because many of them are, but it was also our concern to select essays that took up more than one narrowly-defined approach and that also combined approaches (both traditional and more contemporary) in strikingly innovative ways.

Table of Contents
Preface: Eileen A. Joy, "After Everything, The Postmodern Beowulf"


Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, "Liquid Beowulf" [original essay]



Edward Said, "The World, the Text, and the Critic" [originally published in: Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 31-53]

Claire Sponsler, "In Transit: Theorizing Cultural Appropriation in Medieval Europe" [originally published in: Journal of Early Modern and Medieval Studies 32.1 (Winter 2002): 17-39]


Nicholas Howe, "Beowulf and the Ancestral Homeland" [originally published in: Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (1989; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 143-80]

Allen J. Frantzen, "Writing the Unreadable Beowulf" [originally published in: Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 168-200]

John D. Niles, "Locating Beowulf in Literary History" [originally published in: Exemplaria 5 (March 1993): 79-109]



Alfred K. Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building" [originally published in: Viator 34 [2003]: 1-39]

John Moreland, "Ethnicity, Power and the English" [originally published in: William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrell, eds., Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), 23-51]


James W. Earl, "Beowulf and the Origins of Civilization" [originally published in: James W. Earl, Thinking About Beowulf (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 161-88]

John M. Hill, "The Ethnopsychology of In-Law Feud and the Remaking of Group Identity in Beowulf: The Cases of Hengest and Ingeld" [originally published in: Philological Quarterly 78 (1999): 97-123]

Janet Thormann, "Enjoyment of Violence and Desire for History in Beowulf" [original essay]



Carol J. Clover, "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe" [originally published in: Speculum 68.2 (April 1993): 363-87]

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "The Ruins of Identity" [originally published in: Jeffrey J. Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 1-28]


Clare A. Lees, "Men and Beowulf" [originally published in: Clare A. Lees, ed., Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 129-48]

Mary Dockray-Miller, "Beowulf’s Tears of Fatherhood" [originally published in: Exemplaria 10 (1998): 1-28]

Shari Horner, "Voices from the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf" [originally published in: Shari Horner, The Discourse of Enclosure (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 65-100]



Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" [originally published in: Josué V. Harari, ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-60]

Carol Braun Pasternack, "The Textuality of Old English Poetry" [originally published in: Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1-32]


Gillian Overing, "Swords and Signs: Dynamic Semiosis in Beowulf" [originally published in: Gillian Overing, Langage, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 33-67]

Seth Lerer, "Hrothgar’s Hilt and the Reader in Beowulf" [originally published in: Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 158-94]

Susan M. Kim, "As I Once Did With Grendel: Boasting and Nostalgia in Beowulf" [originally published in: Modern Philology 103.1 (August 2005): 4-27]


Michelle R. Warren, "Post-Philology" [originally published in: Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren, eds., Post-Colonial Moves: Medieval through Modern (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 19-45]

Afterword: James W. Earl, "Reading Beowulf with Original Eyes" [original essay]

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ocular humanization

Last weekend Kid #1, Kid #2, and I put on our identical green Irish T-shirts and went to the movies (the Spouse would have been welcome to don an identical green Irish T-shirt, too, but it was her hard luck to be away on a business trip). Over the Hedge is what I'd describe as perfectly fine kiddy fare: not cloying like, say, The Tigger Movie (after which I seriously considered filing a lawsuit demanding that the 77 minutes painfully extracted from me be restored), and not driven by an attitudinal obnoxiousness masquerading as humor (a la the horrendous Chicken Little).

What struck me most about this film was the sheer cuteness of its animal characters. I'm not a warm and fuzzy person (see my evident misanthropy in the post below), but there is something so darn cuddly about those critters that, while my entranced progeny munched their popcorn, I was compelled to start theorizing.

The attractiveness of the animals, it struck me, owed much to their general anthropomorphism, and especially to their enormous, human eyes: these computer animated creations possess irises and pupils that belong to homo sapiens and not to other mammals. RJ the racoon's bright blue (!) orbs [see the picture, above] gave him not just a human but a juvenile look, activating the powerful "ooooooooohhh" gene. It was difficult to resist the urge to give him a cookie.

So here is the medieval part. Those oversized, sympathetic eyes reminded me of a strategy that a medieval illustrator utilized to humanize some monsters in an Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East manuscript. I'm reproducing below a bit of a lecture I once gave on Anglo-Saxon monsters; for the full talk, folow the hyperlink at the title. For the scholarly version of these observations, check out the first chapter in Of Giants , or see the reprint in The Postmodern Beowulf.

from Monsters, Cannibalism and the Fragile Body in Early England

Writers and artists in early medieval England were fascinated by the grotesque, the marvelous, the monstrous. Anglo-Saxon literature, historiography, manuscript illustration, and sculpture reveal a cultural obsession with the plasticity of the human form. The Wonders of the East, a catalogue of the monsters of the Orient bound with the famous Beowulf manuscript, is crammed with bodies transfigured and deformed. One magnificent illustration makes real the Donestre, a fabulous race described in the legends of the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. The Donestre embody a monstrousness which is both corporeal and linguistic. Because they know all human languages, these strange creatures are able to greet travelers to their country with familiar speech, convincing foreigners that they know their kinsmen and homeland. After they lure their victims close with pleasant conversation, they kill them and devour their bodies except for the head, which they sit over and mourn with weeping. The illustration in the Old English Wonders of the East consists of three successive scenes, read clockwise starting at the top. Here the Donestre is a fleshy, naked man with a lion's head. His curly mane sweeps the curve of his shoulder, and with a sad frown and huge, watery eyes he commiserates with a traveler. The foreigner gestures widely, perhaps in the midst of relating some story about his distant home to his sympathetic listener. The patient monster extends an enormous hand to touch the speaker, a reassuring language of the body. Below and to the right is the next episode of the narrative: the Donestre, having heard enough, is busy devouring the traveler. The monster’s naked body is directly on top of the man, pinning him to the earth. The final scene, in the lower left corner, finds the Donestre looking melancholic. He holds his hands to furry ears, frowns miserably, and stares at the bodiless head of his victim, the only remnant of the feast.

When read chronologically through the three scenes, the Donestre's body undergoes a revealing transformation. At first more manly than bestial, the monster's animal head is fully anthropomorphized to give an sympathetic look — as if he were a medieval version of Simba or some other friendly character from The Lion King. Or, at least, one of the characters from The Lion King on steroids: his hands, calves, and chest bulge with muscles. Unlike any Disney drawing, though, this body possesses genitalia -- here painted bright red and prominently displayed. Compared to the hypermasculine body of the Donestre, the traveler's form is thin, has bad posture, and looks feeble. As the Donestre devours his victim, the monster’s body becomes more leonine: he is on all fours, as if he has just pounced; his nose and lips form a snout; his eyes suddenly lack whites. An oral, animal ecstasy characterizes the second scene as the Donestre -- bare buttocks arched above the prone foreigner's hips -- devours the man's erect arm. That this combination of violence and eroticism is difficult to contain in the illustration is indicated by the Donestre's very human left foot, which steps out of the picture and into the frame -- the only part of the image to violate its protective border. The last segment of the three-part story finds both bodies much reduced. The traveler has vanished, replaced by a peacefully oblivious head. The monster has become an indistinct collection of curved lines that center around a trembling hand, a dark eye, and a tight frown.

The literal incorporation of one body into the flesh of another, cannibalism might be glossed as the fear of losing that boundary which keeps identities individual, separate. The Donestre illustration from Wonders of the East uses cannibalism to explore the limits of personal identity, the fragility of the body as a container of a singular selfhood. The monster here is a cultural, linguistic, and sexual Other who seems to be intimate (he knows you, he can talk about your relatives, he can share in your homesickness), but who in fact brutally converts an identity familiar and secure into an alien thing, into a subject estranged from its own body. In the last scene of the narrative the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer's gaze back to the new body in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become; the traveler ponders what he once was from the outside, as a foreigner. The Donestre transubstantiates the man, making him realize through a bodily conversion that he was always already a stranger to himself. The Donestre-Traveler stares at the mute, lifeless head with such affective sadness because at this moment of plurality he sees the precariousness of selfhood, how much of the world it excludes in its panic to remain self-same, singular, alone.

The monster exposes what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the extimité, the "intimate otherness" or "interior exteriority" of identity. To be fully human is to disavow the strange space that the inhuman, the monstrous, occupies within. To succeed on a mass scale, this disavowal requires two things: a measure of cultural uniformity and relative social calm. Britain in the centuries before the Norman conquest was a hybrid collection of peoples who were constantly forced to examine who they were in relation to a shifting array of differences. "Anglo-Saxon England" is a blanket term that hides more than it reveals. In a real sense, there were no Anglo-Saxons, only scattered groups of varied ancestry in growing alliances who were slowly building larger political units. "England" existed as an ambiguous region of a larger island, and was very much in the process of being invented as a unifying geography, as a nation-idea capable of transcending the differences among those bodies it collects beneath its name. The various Germanic peoples who sailed to Britain beginning in the fifth century were ethnically diverse. As they settled the island they intermingled with the Britons and with each other. The Latin church meanwhile continued to colonize in successive waves. In 835, the Vikings began their violent incursions, raids, and settlements. The history of Anglo-Saxon England is a narrative of resistant hybridity, of small groups ingested into larger bodies without a full assimilation, without cultural homogeneity: thus the kingdoms of Hwicce, Sussex, Kent, Lindsey, Surrey, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex were sutured over time into progressively larger realms, but despite the fact that they were eventually loosely unified under King Alfred, these areas retained enough force of difference to remain dialect regions that persist to the present day.

Anglo-Saxon England is not so very different from the monstrous Donestre who fascinated it: familiar and strange, hybrid rather than homogenous, a body that absorbs difference without completely reducing or assimilating it. Because of its diversity and because of its permeable, perpetually transgressed borders, Anglo-Saxon England was relentlessly pondering what it meant to be a warrior, a Christian, a hero, a saint, an outlaw, a king, a sexed and gendered being. If there is a generalization under which such a long and varied time period can be gathered without doing reductive violence to its expansiveness, it is simply that during the span of years now designated by "Anglo-Saxon England" the limits of identity were under ceaseless interrogation because they were confronted by almost constant challenge. It is not surprising, then, that the monster became a kind of cultural shorthand for the problems of identity construction, for the irreducible difference that lurks deep within the culture-bound self.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The shock of recognition

From an honor's thesis by Amy Baily, composed here at GW, a nifty piece of work in which various people were interviewed about authors, fictions, and illusions of presence:

I asked Jeffrey Cohen whether he’d trade reading Chaucer for being able to spend time with him.
COHEN: No.(laughing) Amy, I'm sitting in this office not because I like people; I don't really like people; I like books and texts. If Chaucer hadn't written his books I wouldn't be interested in him. I wouldn't want anything to do with Chaucer the person.

AB:Who makes books?

COHEN: People, who get transformed by them and lose themselves in them. The person is not the book.
Sure, I get that little thrill of meeting an author when I go to a book signing ... especially if the author exceeds my fantasy of who that author is going to be. Most of the time they don't.

For me the book is different from the person, and the book doesn't necessarily make me want to meet the person or idolize that person, or give me a fantasy of "I could be that person's friend, or pick that person's brain." No, I'm just happy to be in the textual world, and that's enough.

Paging Molière: it's official, I'm a misanthrope.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"a place of expectation without promise of fulfillment"

Beautiful meditation on multiplication of negatives, Forster, translation and Old English verse at Old English in New York.

The BABEL working group

Born of jottings in a lounge in Asheville, launched via inscribed pumpkin on a misfiring medieval trebuchet, the BABEL Working Group is almost too astonishing to be believed. Almost. But because I know Eileen Joy is real -- or at least have some compelling evidence that she is real -- and because I know that BABEL is already sponsoring conference sessions and publishing projects (I have an afterword in a BABEL-affiliated collection, Reality, Television and the Middle Ages and a reprinted piece in another, The Postmodern Beowulf), I am going to stake my academic credibility (such as it is) on the fact that the amazing BABEL website is the future of medieval studies. Or, at least, of interesting medieval studies.

Here's a small taste:
How could we have a collective that could act as a lever for a new discourse within the academy aimed at reformulating and redefining what we think we mean by "humanism" and "the humanities," such that we could also advocate for the important role of humanities study in the post-historical, post-human, hell, post-everything university, and also in public life? We also desired to be able to undertake this venture, as well as engage in various collaborative activities, with scholars working in more modern humanities fields, and also with scientists working in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnologoy, robotics, artificial life, particle physics, etc. It was (and is) our feeling that many of the debates currently ongoing between the modernists, and between the scientists, regarding such subjects as "the future of literary studies" or "the future of the human," could benefit immeasurably from the "long" (or, "longer") historical perspectives of medieval studies, and moreover, medieval studies could benefit by being, not merely poachers of contemporary critical thought, but one of its many co-agitators. Finally, how could we create a space where, following Bill Readings, "the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question" (The University in Ruins, p. 20). After much scribbling of all of this on Meantime Lounge cocktail napkins, BABEL was born.

Described as "a non-hierarchical scholarly collective, with no leaders or followers, no top and no bottom," the BABEL Working Group has taken as its current project musings upon corporality and posthumanity, topics near and dear to my own heart. Check out the website, and while you're at it glance at Eileen A. Joy's website, too.

I posted recently on the necessity of maintaining a sense of humor even when engaged in reflection upon Utterly Serious Topics (see Tiny Epiphany). The exuberant and cheeky BABEL Working Group delivers a manifesto for a serious and seriously engaged medieval future. Babel on!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Stone of Brutus

Seems I'm trying to set a record here for number of posts to In the Middle within a single day. Via the BBC via JKW at Pistols in the Pulpit:

London's heart of stone
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

The mysterious "London stone" is going to be rescued from a building due to be demolished. Does it mean that London is going to be saved from an ancient legend?

You couldn't get much less of a romantic setting for an historic monument. It's in a kerbside cage, stuck on the wall of a sports shop in Cannon Street due for demolition.

The only clouds of mystery billowing around it are the car exhaust fumes from the traffic crawling through the City of London.

But this is the neglected setting of the London Stone - an ancient and mysterious object mentioned by Shakespeare, William Blake and Dickens, which has been seen as one of the capital's greatest relics since at least the Middle Ages and probably much earlier.

Now there are plans for the limestone block to be put into the Museum of London for safekeeping, while the building to which it's gloomily attached is pulled down and the site is redeveloped.

Protecting the stone might not be such a bad idea - since there is a legend that, like the ravens at the Tower of London, the fortune of the city is tied to the survival of the stone.

"So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish," says the proverb.

Moved to museum

This relates to the myth that the stone was part of an altar built by Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of London. This might be unlikely, but then again no one really knows its origin.

Hedley Swain, archaeologist at the Museum of London, says it is clearly an ancient block - but despite the many legends, there is no way of confirming its date or purpose.

A more pressing concern is how to rescue the stone from its current position, in a building that is set to be pulled down.

"The trouble is that at the moment it's not really looked after by anyone," he says. And although there is no fixed timetable, he is expecting the stone to be brought to the Museum of London for display while the new building is constructed.

"People go to look for it, thinking it's going to be a grand object, and then they walk up and down Cannon Street and can't find it."

"We get letters from people saying that it's appalling that it's being kept in this way."

But he says there is no way of confirming rival theories that it was a Roman distance marker or part of a prehistoric standing stone or any of the many more exotic myths.

The area between Cannon Street and the River Thames was a site of important Roman buildings - and he says that the stone could have been from these buildings.

But it could also have been much older and part of some other pre-Roman edifice.

Guarding the stone

It's not entirely the case that no one is looking after the stone, because it does have a current custodian: Chris Cheek, the manager of the Sportec sports shop to which the stone is attached.

And even though he isn't a household name, Londoners might not realise that he has already saved their city from the destruction promised if the stone is lost.

"When we were setting up the shop, there were cowboy builders here, and one of them was just about to take a chisel to the stone. I told him 'Whoah. Stop right there.'"

And Mr Cheek has become attached to this strange situation, where one of the city's most ancient objects is parked in his shop, surrounded by football shirts, cricket bats and trainers.

In fact, while people try to see it from outside, the only decent view of the stone is from the cricket section in his shop.

Does he believe in the legend that London's future well-being depends on this stone?

"Yes. I do really. I'm not into hocus pocus, but there is something about this stone. For some reason it's been kept, there's something special about it."

Sacred stones

This could be because of its associations with druids, he suggests, or maybe just the sheer weight of history - from the Roman legionnaires through to the Blitz.

He also says it reveals something about people's characters.

"There are people who have travelled all the way from Australia to see this stone. And there are other people who are so hectic, so busy with their appointments, that they walk past it every day of week and never even see it."

"And there are people who come in for a pair of socks and then suddenly see it. 'Is that the London stone? I've heard of that'."

Mr Cheek also enjoys the idea that, until it's shifted to a museum, he is the latest in a long line of people to be in charge of something so mysterious and ancient.

The idea of sacred stones is a very ancient tradition - monarchs are still crowned on the Stone of Scone, the so-called "stone of destiny", in Westminster Abbey.

And the London stone has been the source of speculation right through the capital's history.

Magic powers

Queen Elizabeth I's adviser and occultist, John Dee, was obsessed by the stone, believing that it had magic powers.

Shakespeare depicted the 15th Century peasants' rebellion leader, Jack Cade, striking the London stone as a symbolic sign of taking control of the city.

And Mr Cheek can point out the grooves in the top of the stone, furrowed, he believes, by repeated sword blows.

Christopher Wren saw the foundations of the stone being excavated - and believed it to be part of a bigger Roman structure.

William Blake used the story that the stone had been part of a druid altar - reflecting another belief that it was from a pre-Roman religious stone circle on the site now occupied by St Paul's Cathedral.

The persistent story that the stone was the symbolic centre point from which every distance in Roman Britain was measured was already in circulation in the 16th Century.

Stone survivor

But maybe the London stone's most remarkable achievement is to have survived at all - through wars, plagues, fires and even 1960s planning, right in the middle of the financial district of the capital.

It's probably still in a setting not too far from where it stood when the Romans were building London.

In 18th Century prints it was kept in an elegant stone casing - and there are photographs of Victorian police men guarding the stone, when it was set into the wall of a church at waist height.

This church, St Swithin, was damaged during a bombing raid during World War II - and the stone was then attached to a new building on the site.

This current building is set to be pulled down - and the Corporation of London is ensuring that the replacement will be put the chunk of limestone on display in a way that is more prominent.

Archaeologist Hedley Swain says the stone also serves as a reminder that "under the superficial veneer of being a modern business capital, London has so many deep layers of accumulated history".

Mr Cheek says that the real appeal is its mystery. "If it doesn't have a beginning, then perhaps it doesn't have an end either."

Quote of the day: from Steven F. Kruger, The Spectral Jew

I can't seem to get these lines out of my head, so well do they convey Kruger's project in his new book. Here Kruger is speaking of the Dialogi of Peter Alfonsi, a conversation staged between a converted Jew and whats eems to be his former self. This Jew-that-was-Peter, named Moses, gets some of the best lines in the Dialogi, and does not in the end convert. Kruger writes:
The Dialogi thus never takes the final step of remerging Peter and Moses. Peter's former self never disappears, is never transformed; Moses remains represent throughout -- "stolid," making his arguments of women -- a reminder of Peter's Jewishness that, at least in this text, is never effaced. Despite Moses's final concessions, and despite what we know about the real-life conversion of Peter, the text continues to enact a perverse Jewish countermovement to the (proper) movement of conversion. Moses's transformation through the spirit remains wished for rather than completed; as the text draws to its close, the preconversion Jew still stands alongside his postconversion self. A residue of Jewish identity is thus ineffably inscribed within Peter's celebration of his own embracing of Christianity ... It is a certain queer residue that maintains the converted Jew as still (in terms of gender, [quasi] race, and sexuality as well as religion) different from those whom he has joined through conversion. (p.123)

Such "complex ambivalence," Kruger argues, accounts for the popularity of the Dialogi, which flourished at a time when "Islam in fact poses a significant threat to European Christian hegemony, and Judaism itself, no matter how diminished or historically 'humiliated,' persists as a presence within Europe" (124).

A longer review of this book will eventually follow ...

Good medieval website

This website has been created by graduate students of medieval English literature at the University of Cambridge. Although much of the material and resources presented on these pages is directed towards the study of the literature of the Middle Ages, we intend that this site will evolve into both a useful collection of resources and also a point of contact for medievalists both at Cambridge and around the world who are engaged in the study of medieval English literature, history, culture, and thought.

An attractively designed site that provides a cornucopia of materials, including a sturdy Online Resources for Medievalists page.

Brilliant classics blog

Its title won't sound quite right if you've just been reading about the Warren Cup (below), but Kofi Campbell steered me towards this amazing blog: the Trojan war as narrated by a solider in Odysseus's army. Funny and smart.

Seth to Horus: "How lovely your backside is!"

And Horus to his mom: "Seth tried to know me."

Interesting article on a British Museum lecture series about same sex desire in the ancient (Egyptian, Greek and Roman) world. A related exhibit centers around the Warren Cup (1st C CE), a silver drinking vessel with two sexually explicit, homoerotic scenes. A nicely detailed image of the cup and some background can be found through the British Museum Compass. And there's even a site that sells replicas (and provides good background on the cup's Victorian discovery and the long road to its public exhibition).

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tiny epiphany

Watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight with Kid #1 made me realize what bothers me most about The Da Vinci Code (other than the fact that Da Vinci is not a last name). Whereas the magnum opus of Dan Brown takes itself far too seriously, this fun little piece of American movie making refuses to deploy any of its mythology in a heavy-handed way. Nazis, the face-melting Angel of Death, rainforest temples loaded with rolling stones and poison darts: I'd forgotten all the chuckles the film provides, while in a way taking all these things seriously enough.

I love the fact that the United States ends up with the Ark of the Covenant, making the U.S the New Chosen People of the Biblical God ... only the ark gets misplaced in warehouse somewhere, and no one really cares.

Same as it ever was

I've been thinking lately about a cross-dressing embroideress from late fourteenth-century London. Perhaps you've heard of John Rykener, AKA Eleanor [ Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans ]. Dressed as a woman, Eleanor John was propositioned by a man named John Britby in 1395 and agreed to have sex with him for a certain sum of money. They were arrested while engaged in this "libidinous act" and brought before the mayor and aldermen of London. To the questioning authorities Eleanor John narrated a life filled with sex acts enjoyed abed and outdoors, sometimes for money or goods, sometimes not; sometimes with men (especially clerics), sometimes with women (including nuns). Much of the time in between these escapades was spent in women's clothing, living a quiet life of embroidery work. The remarkable contemporary document that gives a brief glimpse of Eleanor John's life was published by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras a decade ago ["`Ut cum muliere": A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London," Premodern Sexualities , ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carl Freccero (London: Routledge, 1996) 99-116; the Latin document with an English translation can be viewed in the Medieval Sourcebook]. Carolyn Dinshaw provides a nuanced reading of the text in her book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999), stressing "his/her queer and queering presence" throughout the narrative Eleanor John provides. [For a web accessible but condensed version of Dinshaw's argument, look here]. Rightly so, she contextualizes the legal document with reference to Lollards and the Canterbury Tales; rightly so, she stresses that there is also something untimely about the narrative, something that invites an affective, community-engendering reading.

I've been thinking about Eleanor John in relation to some keen words from the foremost modern philosopher of gender, Judith Butler. I'm a fan of all Butler's work, but have found her recent book Undoing Gender especially useful … and moving. In the introduction she speaks of the necessity, and difficulty, of bringing into being a livable life. That's no sloppy redundancy, but an acknowledgement that contemporary culture is very good at allotting spaces to those who dwell outside the sphere of the normal (as if a mere place were what tolerance is about); these spaces often turn out to be uninhabitable to those who are consigned within. We need a certain openness, she writes, a lack of predetermination when it comes to deciding what it means to be human: "We must learn to live and to embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious and, finally, less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise form our humanness does and will take" (35).

The search for a livable life: that's what it seems to me that Eleanor John was engaged in when apprehended in London in 1395 and compelled to a self accounting. We'll never know, of course, what desires animated Eleanor John; we'll never know if some severe punishment followed the confession to the mayor (no further record survives); we'll never even know what gender Eleanor John would choose, if given the choice-- or maybe for our transvestite-embroideress-prostitute-gigolo a livable life would have consisted in the option of not having to declare a choice, of not having to give a self-accounting that necessitated a self justification.

I write all this because two days ago at what was to be an ordinary lunch in an ordinary restaurant on a nondescript day, a friend confessed that he will, within a matter of months, be living as a woman. This friend – why not call him John? – has initiated hormone therapy and is beginning to live sometimes as (lets keep the medieval analogy going) Eleanor. For the most part the only vocabulary we have today for talking about transexuality involves jokes and tragedy. In John's case the decision and the change are in no way funny (even if John has the good humor to make light of what he can). John has young children. He, his wife, and his kids are close to me, my wife, our kids. We all love John and want him to be happy, but we are all only too much aware of the amount of present and looming pain. Selfishly, I am also mourning the loss of my friend – or, rather, the loss of my fantasy that I knew this friend as he is.

To confess his narrative to me was difficult for John. I could see it as he sat across from me, and as we walked back to my office at GW. He told me afterwards that he suspected I would accept him for who he had revealed himself to be. He knows that my family is queer friendly: many pals who are gays and lesbians, some close friends who live together as a polyamorous quad. But he was nervous all the same, especially because this means a major change not just for him but for his-- and our -- whole family. He and his wife will no longer live together, but will strive to remain best friends.

John, becoming Eleanor, is brave. He faces a wholly uncertain future: What will his kids think? The community? The conservative firm for which he works? Yet he faces that uncertainty with a courage that I can barely comprehend. I'm honored that he confided what he did in me, and I'm happy that he chose this difficult path to creating a livable life over the alternative he had seriously contemplated, suicide.

I will miss John, but "John" was partly a creation of my own ignorance. I will look forward, then, to getting to know Eleanor.

(posted with the permission of "John," who would rather have been compared to Joan of Arc)

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.

An MLA panel to anticipate

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"an albino, ful pale and straunge to se"

A ‘romaunce thrillere’ that could easily star Tom Hanks. Must be read to be believed.

[And while we're talking quietly snarky exposés of the vacuousness of contemporary pseudomedievalisms, "anybody can come up with a device permitting you to plunge to your death while waving your arms" is pretty good too].

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Warning: loud horn tooting

Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain is hot off the press. My usual experience with a new book involves eagerly opening the crisp volume to its first page and -- despite my weeks spent obsessing over copyedited text and galleys -- instantly finding a typo. This time I decided to defeat fate via a circuitous route and opened to the last page of the epilogue ... where I immediately found a typo ("Meier" for the Hebrew name "Meir").

Here is some information on the book, lifted from the Palgrave website. It is priced too high for individual purchase ($75 and certainly not worth every penny), but I do encourage you to request it through your nearest library. Later in the week I will post another excerpt from the work; for a draft of the introduction, look here.


Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain examines an island made turbulent by conquest and civil war. Focusing upon history writing, ethnography, and saints' lives, this book details how community was imagined in the twelfth century; what role the monsterization of the Welsh, Irish and Jews played in bringing about English unity; and how writers who found the blood of two peoples mixed in their bodies struggled to find a vocabulary to express their identity. Its chapters explores the function and origin of myths like the unity and separateness of the English, the barbarism of the Celtic Fringe, the innate desire of Jews to murder Christian children as part of their Pesach ritual. Populated by wonders like a tempest formed of blood, a Saracen pope, strange creatures suspended between the animal and the human, and corpses animated with uncanny life, Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain maps how collective identities form through violent exclusions, and details the price paid by those who find themselves denied the possibility of belonging.

Author Bio
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. His work has long explored identity, postcoloniality and monstrosity in medieval literature. He is the author of Medieval Identity Machines and Of Giants, and the editor of The Postcolonial Middle Ages, Thinking the Limits of the Body, Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, and Monster Theory:Reading Culture. His essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Speculum, New Literary History, Exemplaria, and the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Table of contents
Introduction: In medias res * Acts of Separation: Shaping Communal Bodies * Between Belongongs: History's Middle * In the Borderlands: The Identities of Gerald of Wales * City of Catastrophes * The Flow of Blood in Norwich * Epilogue: In medias res

Monday, May 15, 2006

"Fustian-free" nostalgia: D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths

I was in the third grade when I first read this book, and already suffering the changes, the horns, wings and tusks that grow on your imagination when you thrive on a steady diet of myths and fairy tales ... The world of the Norse gods and men and giants, which the d'Aulaires depicted, in a stunning series of lithographs, with such loving and whimsical and brutal delicacy, begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches. It is a world conjured against darkness, in its lee, so to speak ... We all grew up -- all of us, from the beginning -- in a time of violence, absurdity and Armageddon, prey and witness to the worst and best in humanity, in a world ruined and made interesting by Loki. I took comfort, as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now, that the world had always been on the edge of total destruction, even if, in Maryland in 1969, as today, it seemed a little more true than usual.

So writes Michael Chabon in his introduction to the recently reissued children's classic, D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths (known to those of us who read it in its earlier incarnations as Norse Gods and Giants). The book is worth purchasing for Chabon's preface alone, so well does his short essay capture the appeal of this alternate universe as portrayed by the d'Aulaires. Chabon describes how the book combined "fustian-free" and shockingly nonjudgmental prose with "spectacular and quirky" lithographs -- a true marriage of text and picture in which Edgar Parin d'Aulaire and Ingri Mortenson became, like their art, a composite entity.

I've enjoyed Chabon's work since his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, so it was amusing to find that he was as passionate in his youth about the work of the d'Aulaires as I was. Reading their Book of Greek Myths in second grade made me want to become a classicist (it was only later in life that I figured out that the d'Aulaires had de-sexualized those stories quite a bit, describing every erotic conquest of a male god as his "wife"). Their retelling of Northern mythology, on the other hand, may have cemented my fate as a medievalist: otherwise I am at a loss to explain those years I spent learning Old English and Old Norse. There was something appealingly alien in the world they conjured through their art, a strange place where the divinities were both mortal and juvenile; where fate could be tricked and the heavens confused; where a god of mischief might transform himself into a mare and find himself the surprised mother of a baby horse, Sleipnir. It seemed to my youthful mind that the laws governing virtue, reward, justice and biology simply didn't apply in this realm ... and I loved that.

I picked up my copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths at a bookstore in Hanover, NH last month. It has been republished by the New York Review in a faithful presentation that retains the high quality stock of the original paper, and even its slightly beige color. It's been a trip down memory lane for me -- at least when I can wrench the thing from Kid #1's hands. He was attempting to place it in his bookbag this morning to read at school and didn't buy my patently weak reason for forbidding it ("The book is too heavy to take" I declared. Why is it mandatory as a parent that you say stupid things to your offspring?). Somehow I did convince him to let me have the volume, and I've spent the morning lost in its quirky, non-fustian world.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial

A book to watch for this September is Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell's medievalization of the Black Atlantic in Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial. You can follow the hyperlinked title above, or read about it a bit below. My blurb is far from empty praise: this is my favorite new project in medieval studies.

This book extends our understanding of the Black Atlantic, a term coined by Paul Gilroy to describe the political, cultural and creative interrelations among blacks living in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Gilroy famously locates the beginning of Black Atlantic history in the Middle Passage, the mass transportation of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. Campbell argues that that history in fact predates the Middle Passage and focuses on pre-colonial (i.e. Medieval and early Renaissance) English literary constructions of blacks, Africa and the Caribbean, and the effects of those constructions on post-Independence Caribbean literature. In this way, the book situates the Middle Passage within larger historical and cultural processes, rather than as the centre and origin of Black Atlantic history.

Author Bio
Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell is Assistant Professor of English at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus. He has published articles on both medieval and postcolonial literatures. His current research focuses on the portrayal of same-sex love and lovers in the literature of the Caribbean diaspora, and on the construction of nationalism in England during the Middle Ages.

Praise for Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic
“There is much to admire in Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: its erudition, its originality, its verve. What sets Campbell's book apart is its sophisticated deployment of Caribbean-derived models of hybridity and time, and its twinned emphasis on Africa in the medieval imagination and the contemporary Black Atlantic. Campbell's scholarship is an important and ambitious contribution; absolutely essential reading for medievalists and postcolonial theorists alike.”--Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Professor of English, George Washington University, author of The Postcolonial Middle Ages and Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain

“In Kofi Campbell’s Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic we have a new medievalism at work in the most intelligent and original version. Here, the cultural discourse of the Middle Ages, with all its claims and anxieties, is finally confronted with the project of the Black Atlantic. This book shows how a new kind of comparative literary studies, one cutting across geographies, periods, and disciplines, can enrich scholarship. The range of writers covered here is impressive and the discussion of cross cultural encounters and the texts that enable them is rich.”—Simon Gikandi, Professor of English, Princeton University, author of Writing in Limbo: Modernism and Caribbean Literature and Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism

“This is a fascinating and ambitious study, which seeks to provide a cultural genealogy for Paul Gilroy’s conception of the Black Atlantic. By reading modern Caribbean literature in the context of pre-modern constructions of African identity, Campbell offers a daring new perspective on modern constructions of nation, ethnicity, and race.”--Suzanne Akbari, Associate Professor of English, Medieval Studies, and Comparative Literature, University of Toronto, author of Seeing Through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory

“Kofi Campbell gives compelling reasons why a critical re-reading of Gilroy’s take on the Black Atlantic is both timely and necessary. His superb historical imagination enables him to see the Black Atlantic independently of, and prior to, the white gaze, while his sociological insights lead to a nuanced view of both history and culture as hybridized.”-- Anton Allahar, Professor of Sociology, University of Western Ontario, author of Sociology and the Periphery: Theories and Issues

“Kofi Campbell’s scholarly and rigorous study argues very convincingly about the need to move beyond the Middle Passage in order to locate and historicize the complexity of the black diaspora. An impressive and timely work that brings together a broad range of material to shed new light on the pre-colonial past and the postcolonial present. A very significant and original contribution to both African and postcolonial studies.”--Chelva Kanaganayakam, Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies, and Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, author of Counterrealism and Indo-Anglian Fiction and Configurations of Exile: South Asian Writers and Their World

Table of contents
Introduction * Intro * The Postcolonial Middle Ages? * This project * Part I * Beginnings 1: Africa in the European Imaginary * Beginnings 2: Africa in the Middle English Vernacular * De Proprietatibus Rerum and the African Primitive * It was Ours to Begin With: Colonialist Desire in The Three Kings of Cologne * What Does it Mean to be Black?: Skin Colour in the Secretum Secretorum * Part II * ‘Ethiops like the develes of helle’: Monster Theory, Giants, and the Sowdone of Babylone * Mandeville’s Africa * Part III * Textual Relationships * On the Crest of Two Worlds: The Renaissance Pre-colonial * Old Traditions in a New World: The Extended Dream Narrative of Wilson Harris’ Guyana Quartet * Part IV * Mimicry and Identity on the Black Atlantic: Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain * Closing the Rhetorical Circle: “Heat” and “Coldness” in Paul Keens-Douglas’ “Ent Dat Nice?” * Closing the Black Atlantic Circle: David Dabydeen and the Politics of Nationalism * Conclusion * Works Cited

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Monsters that have lived in my home

A recurring topic of this blog -- and a longtime focus of my research -- has been the history of monsters, those repulsively attractive creatures that seem to dwell in the space between the human and the animal, alien, or other. Today I will share a small collection of these beings who dwell, quite literally, close to home ... specifically within the Cohen domicile. Each has been catalogued and described by Kid #1 over the past nine years of his life here.

(1) The Green Eyes
A pair of disembodied orbs that used to float mysteriously above the grass just outside the nursery window. Unblinking, nocturnal, and luminescent. Suspected to be the reflection of an elliptical nightlight on the double paned glass of the window. This explanation was roundly rejected by Kid #1, who insisted that any moron could tell they were floating eyeballs. First sighted seven years ago, and not seen since Kid #1 moved to another room and the nightlight was replaced.

(2) The Scratchy Monster
The first monster to attempt to penetrate Kid #1's new bedroom. Never visible, but supposed to be large, bat-like, and almost flat. Could be heard at dusk as it attempted to scale the bricks of the house, moving slowly towards Kid #1's bedroom window on the second floor. Suspected to be the sound of summer crickets, but this explanation was immediately dismissed as wrongheaded: crickets do not make the steel-like scraping sound of the Scratchy Monster's sharp claws on brick.

(3) Mr. Shadow
The most unsettling of the supernatural denizens of the Cohen household. Long haunted the nursery, where he was spotted as a pair of flickering eyes that could be barely glimpsed peering out from behind the door or bookcase. Dwelled only where the nighttime gloom was thickest. For years Mr. Shadow did not speak to Kid #1, but glared in unnerving silence. When he finally did utter some words, he confided to my son that he had once been a little boy named Kidkid who had lived in the house many, many years ago. Because he was very evil (he often did not listen to his parents and teachers) he was doomed at his early death to remain in the house forever. Thus he lurked in dim places, watching this new boy to see if he would behave well. Mr. Shadow began as a frightening presence, capable of making Kid #1 run downstairs to his parents in tears, but once he confided his story he became an object of pity -- and, in a strange way, a companion. He has with time slowly faded from Kid #1's life. Now that Kid #2 has just turned two (the age at which Mr. Shadow began staring at Kid #1), it will be interesting to see if he manifests again.

(4) The Sheriff
The most recent ghoul to enter our home, making his presence known last night. Formed from an algae-like, bubbling mass that vaguely resembles a tall man in a western hat, the Sheriff enters homes via the cracks under doors or through slightly open windows. He then slides into beds and begins devouring the flesh of anyone trying to sleep there.

It is a wonder that anyone chez Cohen is able to close their eyes at night.

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.

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.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Good luck to all the Kalamazoo bloggers ...

... and I hope that after the conference has come to its brilliant conclusion someone will offer some thoughts about the bloggers meet-up and the blogging session. [Weblogs and the Academy: Internet Presence and Professional Discourse among Medievalists (A Roundtable)]

Don't feed the geese, may you never meet the mystery person with whom you will share the bathroom in your dorm, and wassail!

Another book for proto-medievalists

Kid #1 has really taken to Stuart Hill's The Cry of the Icemark. He's already figured out that the Icemark is probably medieval Iceland, the warriors who fight for it are pseudo-Vikings, and the enemy Polypontian Empire is a doppelganger for the Romans. It's not as well written or as historically adept as Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls (a great favorite of mine), and it is terribly derivative, but it's also good to see a juvenile fantasy book with a heroine as fierce as Thirrin Freer Strong-in-the-Arm Lindenshield.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Good news for readers with short attention spans

Last summer while browsing the bookstore at the British Museum I picked up a volume in the new-ish Oxford series Very Short Introductions. (I should clarify: I picked it up, proceeded to the till, and paid for it. Then I took it away and read it).

Chris Gosden's Prehistory: A Very Short Introduction accomplishes the impossible, providing a terse yet readable account of approximately 6 million years of human history in under 130 pages. And we are not just talking about, say, Europe: this book is about ALL of human prehistory, everywhere, from Africa to the Americas to the South Pacific. Judged by the standard of coverage and scope, the book is an abject failure, but considered as an attempt to survey the problems of attempting to comprehend a pre-textual past -- especially through "the stories we tell of the past" -- the book is remarkable. I used it as the first text for a graduate seminar I taught last year, in a session devoted to exploring how a people might send a story into some distant future without the use of words. In fact Prehistory paired well with Walter Mignolo's scholarship in Writing without Words . As a modern analogue we looked at sculptures and signs designed to warn people away from nuclear waste sites long after our current civilization has passed. Another pleasant surprise about Gosden's little book, by the way, is its vaguely feminist interpretive strategies.

Last week I picked up two more volumes in this series which has already reached 100+ volumes: John Blair's The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction and Julian D. Richards's The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction. Blair's volume was a disappointment: it's just an excerpt from Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Considering these books are not Very Inexpensive Introductions, it would be better just to put the longer work on reserve for students if I ever wanted to use it for a class. The Vikings, on the other hand, was written specifically for the series and is money well spent. Its 168pp survey the Viking myth from the Middle Ages to the present, offer a wide-ranging analysis of life in Northern Europe, consider the settlement of Greenland, and give a cautious overview of the "genocide vs assimilation" arguments for places (like Pictland) settled by these peoples.

Perhaps it is because I am so prolix, it's refreshing to read short and breezy takes on tough subjects like these.

On a related note, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jean McGarry on an airplane recently. She told me about her new book A Bad and Stupid Girl, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

New grad student blog

It's only five days old, but Old English in New York looks promising. The world needs more Anglo-Saxonists.

Add another anonymous medievalist to your blogroll.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Exemplaria honors Sheila Delany

I was early in my career when Sheila Delany's The Naked Text appeared, and I remember being wowed by its complicated take on feminism, inspired by its ambitious commingling of varied theorists. The cluster of essays she edited for Exemplaria in 2000 (“’Turn it again’: Jewish Medieval Studies and Literary Theory”) arrived just as I was finishing putting together The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and provoked me to think more deeply about what kind of scholarship our "normative training as medievalists" (those are Delany's words) encourages, and how a less Christiancentric Middle Ages might challenge that implicit POV.

Delany's de-centered readings of medieval literature, posed ardently against received frames, helped to bring about a contemporary medieval studies in which the interpeter does not need to adopt a male, Christian, elite point of view -- and indeed can argue vigorously against such adoption. Maybe that doesn't seem like big news any more, but it was not all that long ago when such ideas were radical.

Check out this excellent cluster of essays, just published by Exemplaria to honor Delany's life and work. The concise introduction to her scholarship and a complete bibliography of her publications are especially valuable.