[from the esteemed author of our book club's volume Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature]
First and foremost, how fantastic that Eileen has a family connection to the Essex! I’m dying to know how that sort of information gets passed down in families: is it something you learn at your grandmother’s knee?! I now feel compelled to add my own anecdote – although only tangentially cannibal related. I knew someone who had a great-great –x?- grandfather who is in Moby Dick. In one of the early chapters, Ishmail goes into an old whaling chapel in Nantucket and reads the plaques on the walls of sailors dead & lost at sea: as it turns out the chapel is still standing – Melville just went ahead and transcribed the monuments.
In any case, on to the cannibals – I knew that the eoten discussion in my chapter on Beowulf was a longshot, but I was hoping to have more takers! All I really want to suggest is the following: Scholars (philologists and non) have traditionally agree that “Jute” is not a grammatical possibility for but is demanded by the context – Tolkien says that trolls are not welcome here. Now, however, we are more willing to accept that the context might indeed demand monsters rather than Jutes – both because sensibilities in literary studies have changed and also because of the manuscript context of the poem. Therefore, if we accept that eoten should be consistently translated as a monster of some sort, almost certainly a giant, and we also accept that in medieval literature giants are very frequently cannibalistic, and furthermore that the specific threat of the kind of eoten that Grendel is is eating people, what does the poem look like if we translate eoten systematically as “cannibal,” or, at least, if we keep that reading in the back of our minds?
More generally, I found that the more time I spent with these texts, I became less interested in the body and more interested in genre, which I felt emerging as an underlying theme. Of course it’s so difficult to talk about genre in a medieval context, but I was taken with Mary Carruther’s discussion of Heloise in The Book of Memory (which I don’t have ready to hand, so apologies if I’m remembering incorrectly) where she refers to Heloise’s identity as a florilegium of sorts – not constructed in the way we think of the modern “individual,” but pieced together as the memory of a variety of textual moments. I started to wonder whether these texts were at least as interested in identity (both individual and cultural) as something that is articulated through literary form rather than, or as well as, articulated through representations of the human body?
-- Heather Blurton