Thursday, August 16, 2007

Heather Blurton responds

[from the esteemed author of our book club's volume Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature]

Dear all,
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


sylvia huot said...

Just a simple, nitpicking question. You say that medieval giants are frequently cannibalistic. Do you mean that they eat each other or that they eat human beings? I'm no expert on giants, but in my somewhat random experience, they are far more likely to be human-eating than they are to be cannibals (i.e., eating other giants). Off the top of my head I can only think of one example in medieval literature of a giant who makes a habit of eating other giants (in the Prose Tristan), but I haven't actually looked around for it, and I'd be interested in knowing about more.

Or do you feel that in medieval texts, giants really are human beings anyway, so it counts as cannibalism whether they're eating 'normal people' or other giants? They are certainly very LIKE humans, and I'm very willing to think of them that way, but even still they are not exactly 'human, wholly human, and nothing but human' to coin a phrase. This is not meant to be a trouble-making question. I really do want to know what you think about it, and I really would be interested in examples of giants eating other giants. As for trolls, I know nothing about them at all, but I'd be equally interested in whether they eat people, other trolls, or both.

Eileen Joy said...


thanks so much for your response and your willingness to be the first featured author in our new reading group "event." I can tell you that, thanks to reading your book, I have changed my syllabus for an M.A. course I am teaching this semester [shamelessly ripped off from one Jeffrey has taught in the past and somewhat revised according to my own peculiarities], "Writing, Race, and the English Nation," to incorporate the Old English "Andreas" and the first chapter of your book. This will come *after* the students have read the Old English "Letter of Alexander to Aristotle," Bede's "Historia' [the battle against the Saxons on Badon Hill through Augustine's mission], some critical work by Kathy Lavezzo [from "Angels on the Edge of the World"], Homi Bhaba [from "The Location of Culture"], Antonio Benito-Rojo [selections from his book "The Repeating Island"], and Sarah Foot [the important essay "The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest"], and *before* they read "Beowulf." I'll be posting the whole syllabus here on the blog some time next week.

As to my family connection to the Essex disaster, I *wish* I had learned it at a grandmother's knee. Actually, it wasn't until I read Nathaniel Philbrick's book on the event that I made [and researched] the connection. I had always known that my father's ancestors had been whalers in Nantucket, so when I read Philbrick's book and saw the name "Matthew Joy," I thought, hmmm, what are the odds? And as it turned out, after some sleuthing on my father's part, we discovered he was a relative. The storytellers [all Irish, I might add] are on my mother's side of the family, including Maurice Walsh, my mother's uncle, who wrote "The Quiet Man."

Please don't take my comments about your "eoten" argument in your "Beowulf" chapter the wrong way--I think you made it fairly explicit that it was a kind of "thought experiment," more than some kind of linguistic argument. You made clear that the translation of the word in certain instances has always been problematic and you only tentatively offered the possibility [based, partly, on another scholar's argument] of "eoten" meaning "cannibal" as a way of thinking through certain relationships between "eotenas" both within and without the "Beowulf" text *in relation to* how the texts in the Vitellius manuscript [Nowell codex] might have functioned collectively to express certain anxieties about conquest and assimilation, and in that respect, I think you are on somewhat solid ground, and *in any case* everyone here knows I love a good thought experiment [even when they are anachronistic or highly tenuous]. My own work is rife with them [much to the chagrin of some in the field of OE studies]. Your further thinking here that "eoten" is almost certainly "monster," which in OE literature, you are right, are often figured as "giants" is certainly agreeable to me. But the idea of "giant" as often being depicted as a "cannibal"--this I'm not as sure about. There are many many many instances of giant-cannibals in the later medieval literary corpus [think of the giant Arthur slays on Mont St Michel in Monmouth's "Historia" or the giant slain by Yvain in Chretien's "Knight with a Lion"], but other than Grendel [if he is a cannibal--and he may be--I've kind of been waiting for Karl, our resident cannibalism expert, to jump in on this question], many of the giants in OE literature [and here I'm mainly thinking of texts like the OE-Latin "Wonders" and "Letter of Alexander" and the fragmentary OE "Life of St Christopher" and the "Liber Monstrorum," plus references to "enta geweorc" in poems like "Wanderer" and "The Ruin"] are not necessarily eaters of men. But this may just be more quibbling, as yes, I think you may ultimately be right that, *in general*, giantism is often associated with cannibalism [and here, I'm thinking of Homer's Cyclops as well as the giant of "Jack and the Beanstalk"--in other words, there is good evidence of this trope of the giant-cannibal having lasting historical significance and presence in a broad variety of world literatures].

This would bring us, too, to Sylvia's question regarding whether a giant is or is not considered to be "human" [and therefore capable of being a "cannibal," who has to, in certain respects, be a human who "self-eats"], and I would have to say that--again, *in general*--they are often depicted in such a manner, in both OE and ME literature, to be out-sized humans, and therefore *are* humans who, either through accident of "cursed" birth or because of sinful appetites or malevolence or perverted "chivalry," *became* giants. A giant is always, if even only in certain parts, almost always a human. Which might bring us to the question [again] of what might be called "hybrid animal/Other humans" [such as the Donestre of the OE-Latin "Wonders," or the 13-feet-tall "white as marble" women with boar's tusks and camel's feet, also of the "Wonders"] *eating* humans [if they did]: are they cannibals? Since the Donestre have, often, a leonine head [and a very animal-looking, hairy back] but a human lower half, what kind of cannibalism do they practice? Is it just anthrophagy at the level of the mouth, but cannibalism of the intestines? We could have some fun with this, really. It all goes back to your first chapter and your discussion, via the Mermedonians, of "self-eating," I think, which I would love to see you expand upon, and this brings me to, then . . .

. . . the question you raise at the end of your post regarding:

"whether these texts [the texts Blurton analyzes in her book] 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?"

This is a fascinating question, and one that provides much rich food for thought for those of us who regularly write and post on this blog. I frankly think that could be your next book and I would very much want to read such a book.