Wednesday, October 31, 2007

For October 31: A severed head, skeletal fairies, ghosts and a bog man

Fodder for several of our longrunning conversation here at ITM: the Museum of Natural History at Rouen in Normandy has decided that a mummified Maori head in its collections ought to be returned to New Zealand for burial, while the Ministry of Culture has declared the body part preservation-worthy art. Today's NYT meanwhile provides a queer ghost story that ends up rather straight (no gay wizards are involved). Bioephemera has breathtaking images of skeleton fairies attacking a bee and a spider, the mixed media work of artist Tessa Farmer. Lastly, today's illustration is the poster for my impending Holloway Lecture at McDaniel College. Nothing says scholarly fun like an executed peat bog body. The poster was, I'm told, the product of a student competition. Click on the image to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Department of Slow-Moving Targets: Gay Wizards

Thanks Bill Benzon for pointing out this article by Edward Rothstein grouching about gay wizards. I should begin by admitting that I’m not qualified, or at least that I shouldn’t be allowed, to comment on the Harry Potter novels. I read the first two, saw none of the movies, and stopped reading when I remembered George Orwell’s essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” where he writes about public school stories. A quote:
[The stories] run in cycles of rather different types, but in general they are the clean-fun, knock-about type of story, with interest centring round horseplay, practical jokes, ragging masters, fights, canings, football, cricket, and food. A constantly recurring story is one in which a boy is accused of some misdeed committed by another and is too much of a sportsman to reveal the truth. The ‘good’ boys are ‘good’ in the clean-living Englishman tradition—they keep in hard training, wash behind their ears, never hit below the belt, etc. etc.—and by way of contrast there is a series of ‘bad’ boys, Racke, Crooke, Loder and others, whose badness consists in betting, smoking cigarettes and frequenting public-houses. All these boys are constantly on the verge of expulsion, but as it would mean a change of personnel if any boy were actually expelled, no one is ever caught out in any really serious offense. Stealing, for instance, barely enters as a motif. Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools. (Critical Essays, Secker and Warburg, 1951; p. 66)
Much of the rest of the Orwell essay also strikes me as germane to Rowling, particularly the portions on snob appeal, the “incitement to wealth-fantasy,” and on the types of boys: “the athletic, high-spirited boy…a slightly rowdier version…a more aristocratic version…quieter, more studious version…a stolid, ‘bulldog’ version…[a] reckless, dare-devil type of boy…the definitely ‘clever’, studious boy…[the] eccentric boy who is not good at games but possesses some special talent…[and the] scholarship-boy” (72). Whether or not this actually does describe Rowling’s books--if it does, I accept your compliments, if it (likely) doesn't, well, "My wit is short, ye may wel understonde"--Orwell's essay snapped my already fraying interest.

But here I go, joining Rothstein in commenting on Harry Potter, especially in regards to that last bit of Orwell, “Sex is completely taboo, especially in the form in which it actually arises at public schools.”
This is just Rothstein’s problem: Rowling let sex in by outing Dumbledore. He finds “the question…distracting,” since, after all, there’s no evidence, he says, in the books themselves for Dumbledore’s sexual interest or in fact for any sexual interest at all, unless it is renunciation. And for Rothstein this is just how it should be:
As for his later celibacy, it has the echo of a larger renunciation and a greater devotion. That is, after all, what the fantasy genre is all about. The master wizard is not a sexual being; he has shelved personal cares and embraced a higher mission. And if he indulges in sex, it marks his downfall, as it did, so legend tells us, with Merlin, the tradition’s first wizard, who is seduced by one of the Lady of the Lake’s minions. Tolkien’s wizards — both good and evil — are so focused on their cosmic tasks that sexuality seems a petty matter. Gandalf eventually transcends the physical realm altogether.

Ms. Rowling quite consciously makes Dumbledore a flawed, more human wizard than these models, but now goes too far. There is something alien about the idea of a mature Dumbledore being called gay or, for that matter, being in love at all. He may have his earthly difficulties and desires, but in most ways he remains the genre wizard, superior to the world around him.
Now, as I pointed out earlier (while clinging to the shoulders of giants), sexual renunciation is a form of sexual activity, so I can grant Mr. Rothstein a compliment for recognizing that even Dumbledore’s sexual refusal is a sex life. At the same time, I have to balance the compliment by observing that Rothstein doesn’t care one wit whit about the het-sex attractions in the series (are there any between any of the teachers?), which alone suggests that despite the stoic noises he makes, it isn’t sexuality per se that bothers him.

The easy trick for a medievalist is of course to open the sexual wizard trapdoor. There’s Eliavrés, in Caradoc, who “pursued [Ysave] everywhere, and enchanted and bewitched her and tricked her so well by his magic, ruses, and incantations that she dishonoured her lord” (Three Arthurian Romance, trans. Ross G. Arthur, Everyman, 1996, p. 6), and who tricks Ysave’s husband into sleeping with a greyhound, sow, and mare on successive nights. There's the tricksy, raping magic dwarf in Ortnit, who sounds in some ways like the demonic lover in Gowther. There’s sexual wizards aplenty in Perceforest, including the master wizard Darnant and his lineage, who rape to woo; there’s Zephir, who like so many wizards, is a go-between; there’s Lydoire, whose obsession with bears even while having sex leads her to bear a furry child. If we expand the range of activities we think of as sexual, there’s also the divinely Celtic trickster Merlin, who is described, among other places, in Philippe Walter’s “Merlin, le loup et saint Blaise,” Mediaevistik 11 (1998): 97-111, and who is, after all, so queer. We might also recall his strange alliance with our hero in the Roman de Silence.

As much as I'd like to hear about other sexual wizards--and feel free to list them in comments! (is Grendel's mother a sexual wizard?)--surely there's something more interesting we can do with Rothstein's desire for sexless wizardry? It's symptomatic, of course, of a lot of obvious things, and we could take our discussion in that direction. Or we could take our discussion in no direction at all, but, for now, if you please, I'd like to hear what you have to say.

And if you want a laugh, check out Michael Chertoff's Anglo-Saxon prose here.


You may have guessed, based upon some of what has appeared here and in other places, what my favorite holiday might be.

Yes, it's Labor Day.

But my second favorite is Halloween. In answer to that burning question "In what costumes does a medievalist's children dress for October 31?" I offer this year's selections.

Kid #1, who last time around frightened the neighborhood as the Whoopie Cushion of Doom, will this year be a banana. Because he must give this internet-purchased costume his own twist, however, he has added a very frightening clown (that may be redundant) mask and will in fact be The Rotten Banana. A future Bruce Nauman? Beware.

Kid #2, AKA Princess Buppy, will seek candies from strangers dressed elegantly as Belle (from Beauty and the Beast). In a nod to the fact that Halloween may be about more than elegant yellow gowns and tiaras, she will in fact be MEAN BELLE. Presumably she will grab her candy and not say thank you. She has also told me she will step on my feet and possibly punch me, but gently.

Happy halloween! And by the way: what are YOU dressing as? (You may not answer "a scholar").

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Infinite Realms

Below you will find my introduction to the forthcoming collection Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain: Archipelago, Island, England. Much of it will seem familiar to readers of this blog, who have been so very helpful in sharpening in its argument. The volume is currently in production at Palgrave for the New Middle Ages series. Look for the book next year.

An alium orbem somniat infinita regna habentem?
[Is he dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number?]
-- William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs (1.Prologue)

Other Worlds
Medieval Welsh and Irish texts offer stories of realms that exist in strange contiguity to everyday life. The otherworld of Annwn finds its gateway at a mound where adventurers sit seeking wonders. In the account of Cú Chulainn's love for Fand, queen of the sídhe, the hero enters a parallel universe through a nondescript tumulus. The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and the Only Jealousy of Emer [Serglige Con Culainn ocus Óenét Emire] describes the uncanny beings inhabiting this domain as differing from the Irish in their customs, elder history, and potency in magic. Cú Chulainn is cured of self-destructive love for his Fairy Queen only through the intervention of an oblivion spell: he must forget the riches of her world to reinhabit his own. Like many Irish and Welsh stories involving hillocks as portals, the dominant narrative of The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn seems to enfold within it an untold story about the belatedness of a people to the land they possess, figuring the territory's earlier inhabitants as an inhuman race whose traces are dwindling, whose presence lingers as if at dimming twilight.

Oddly enough, a gateway to another world seems to have opened in a mound in twelfth-century Yorkshire as well. The English historian William of Newburgh describes the circumstances. As a nocturnal traveler returned home, his journey was interrupted when song resounded from what had until that moment been a familiar landmark:
A countryman from this hamlet had gone to meet a friend staying in the next village. He was returning late at night a little drunk, when suddenly from a hillock close by ... he heard voices singing, as though people were feasting in celebration.

William assures us that this tumulus is quite near his own birthplace, that he has seen it numerous times himself. On this particular night a door into the mound has opened [in latere tumuli januam patentem] to reveal a celebration in progress:
He approached and looked inside. Before his eyes was a large, well-lit dwelling crowded with men and women reclining at table as at a formal feast. One of the servants noticed him standing at the door, and offered him a cup.

Not the most polite guest, the man pours away the libation and flees to his village, clutching the empty goblet. The revelers pursue, eager to regain their stolen cup, but cannot overtake his horse.

The purloined vessel is described as mysterious in every way, "of unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape" [vasculum materiae incognitae, coloris insoliti, et formae inusitate]. The treasure is bestowed upon King Henry as a gift, and then from the king of England passes to his brother-in-law, David King of Scots, and thence to Henry II. The goblet circulates from the enigmatic mound dwellers to an unnamed Englishman to a succession of regents (Anglo-Norman to Anglo-Scottish to Anglo-Angevin). Yet the vessel’s path is determined not by some weighty history behind its fabrication (this is not the Grail, moving through a world it shapes), but via its inert status as mere curiosity. Through theft, the cup of unknown material becomes divorced from its history, becomes an object existing for an uncomprehending present. The goblet is transformed from the key to another world to a deracinated souvenir of some vaguely exotic elsewhere. The feast once refused recedes from memory, taking with it the story of that community glimpsed within a now permanently inscrutable mound, a lifeless curve of grass and dirt.

What would happen, though, if the English traveler had joined the celebration inside the tumulus rather than stolen its tableware and fled? Having stumbled across a queer intrusion into his accustomed space, could he have accepted the invitation to conviviality? What would have come to pass had the man risked conversation with the subterranean congregants, if one of these congenial revelers had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their elegant repast? Whose history would this mound-dweller narrate? Barely glimpsed by a passerby who preferred the security of his village over the incongruity of the feast, this history would likely be very different from the narrative William of Newburgh otherwise composes.

For William, too, refuses the invitation from the tumulus, discerning at the far side of the mound’s open door a lost tale rather than a living one. A Yorkshire man for whom the hillock had been a quotidian boyhood sight, William is an author proudly English. At the beginning of his work he states flatly that he composes historiam gentis nostrae, id est Anglorum [“a history of our race, that is, the English,” 1.Prologue]. The Britons who had held the land long before “our race” are, in his account, barbarians whose displacement was both necessary and just. The Irish, a people whose land England was energetically annexing as William wrote, are likewise “uncivilized and barbarous.” For William of Newburgh insular history belongs to England. Anyone who insists otherwise – say, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his spectacular History of the Kings of Britain, a resolutely non-anglocentric account of the island’s past – is ridiculously “dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number” (alium orbem somniat infinita regna habentem, 1.Prologue). Writing six decades after Geoffrey, William chronicles the story of a world containing precisely one realm, England.

Geoffrey had provocatively described a Britain possessed of so extensive a history that the Saxons became parvenus, mere interlopers. Long before Alfred and Athelstan reigned, according to the History of the Kings of Britain, Briton heroes like Brutus, Brennius, and Arthur flourished, achieving martial feats unparalleled in English history. Yet despite William’s vitriol for Geoffrey’s proliferative vision, despite his dismissal of Geoffrey’s Arthurian history as mendacity, as a space oneiric rather than factual, William’s History of English Affairs features a hillock that beckons with open doorway, the portal to another realm. The stately feast beheld within the tumulus transforms the mound from a local landmark of no great significance to an alien interstice quite unlike the mundane expanses that surround its rise.

Had the celebrants of the mound’s underground celebration been invited to speak their history, the narrative they would likely tell might reveal the difference between stories of England and stories of Britain, between the attenuated narrative of a kingdom that masqueraded as the entirety of an island and the histories of a tempestuous world too vast, too motley, too entangled in an archipelago of other worlds to be so reduced.

Archipelago, Island, England
“British History has been much in the air of late,” R. R. Davies observed two decades ago, “but it still seems strangely reluctant to come down.” Davies worried that embracing the label “British History” had enabled English historians to “confess their anglocentricity without performing practical penance,” a state of affairs made no better by the fact that historians of Wales, Scotland and Ireland often seemed “intent on cultivating their own corners” instead of adopting a more capacious, more gregarious mode. To move from England to Britain without sacrificing the diversity of the latter to an imagined uniformity in the former is, admittedly, not easy to accomplish – especially because medieval English writers had the infuriating habit of using Britannia or even totius Britanniae as a synonym for Anglia. Yet the difference between an analytical frame centered around medieval England and a wider, paninsular perspective has been well illustrated by Edward James in Britain in the First Millennium, a work that restores multiplicity to the island by examining its history over an exceptionally longue durée. James writes that his expanded temporal span (“the long first millennium”) enables Britain to be studied “as the whole of Britain, from Cornwall to the Shetlands, rather than (usually) England or (sometimes) Wales or Scotland.” A multifarious agent enmeshed within – indeed, inextricable from -- a wide and volatile European context, Britain thereby becomes something more than “a self-sufficient island occasionally invaded or visited as if by aliens from another world.” Similarly, Barry Cunliffe assembles a vast sweep of cultures into a heterogeneous, enduring alliance he calls “the peoples of the long Atlantic façade of Europe.” By resisting the impulse to linguistic segregation, Cunliffe is able to map how the shared experience of living between land and sea gathers seemingly disparate groups into a maritime network of unceasing interaction, shared experience, and cultural interchange, an Atlantic identity as evident in Norman conquistadors as in the Neolithic peoples of the southern British coast. Both James and Cunliffe make clear the critical gains that accrue through the adoption of this transnational ambit, especially when it takes as its point of departure a lively archipelago in constant and transformative contact with a far-extending world.

Most influential among medievalists attempting to emplace the insular Middle Ages within more capacious analytical frames has been the late R. R. Davies. His far-reaching work details how a restless expanse of islands contracted over time into the four well-delimited geopolitical entities we know today. In a vivid account of this long process of materialization and separation, Davies observes that countries
do not descend fully formed from heaven but are shaped and reshaped here on earth by the stratagems of men and the victories of the fortuitous. But once they take root and are bolstered by the habits and mechanisms of unity and by a common mythology, they soon acquire an image, if not of immemoriality, at least of almost inevitable and organic development.

"England," "Scotland," "Wales" and "Ireland" are not natural or even especially obvious partitions of the islands. Quadripartite division is the culmination of centuries of antagonism and alliance that could very well have produced a profoundly different configuration. The hard work of forging fate out of the vagaries of fortune, of creating circumscribed nations and discrete peoples from the sheer messiness of history, usually proceeds retroactively, positing in the past the unchanging solidities desired in the present. Patricia Ingham captures this process with eloquence when she writes:
The nation is always an illusion, a fantasy of wholeness that threatens again and again to fragment from the inside out. Fantasies of national identity teach peoples to desire union; they help inculcate in a populace the apparent 'truth' that unity, regulation, coordination, and wholeness are always better, more satisfying, and more fascinating, than the alternatives. Yet in order to promote desires for national unity, the nation, its core identity, must appear always to have been there, poised to fascinate its people, and ready to be desired.

Whether within the parameters of nation, city, race, or some other solidarity, this desire for unity is frequently engendered through narrative. When examining or imagining the past, such discourses typically assume that when events take one of many possible turns, then that outcome was predestined, even providential. Colin Richmond, contemplating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, writes of the "terrible and terrifying habit of viewing the past as inevitable." When history is taken as a record of what had to happen, when texts record as inexorable the emergence of a nation and the abjection of other peoples, the composition of history and the fashioning of narrative can become exercises in justification and excuse making rather than the opening up of the past to its fullest potentiality. To quote Davies once more, just because four well-bounded countries occupied Britain and Ireland by the end of the Middle Ages, "it need not, of course, have been so."

A similar mixture of chance and strategy accounts for the genesis of the communal identities of the peoples dwelling on these islands in the Middle Ages. None had necessarily to recognize themselves as constituting a distinct community, as a people set solidly apart from others. The fact that they did so should not obscure the contingencies behind the emergence of these separations, the ample potential that existed for history to have unfolded otherwise. Collective names can have profound historical effects, especially as categories humans deploy against each other or to delimit their own identities. Yet despite the stories such peoples tell themselves and announce to others, these groups typically possess limited internal homogeneity, and are never endowed with some core essence immune to historical change. Though nationalistic dreams posit enduring racial groups like the Romans, the Saxons or even the Jews and attempt to maintain such imagined purities through endogamy, intermingling and mutability are in fact human constants. When communal identities are built upon the embrace of a single language, culture, history, then variation and diversity can be difficult to discern. Yet heterogeneity and excluded difference lurk, banished perhaps to dwell underground and out of sight, but surfacing irregularly and in surprising forms.

Britain had once been part of an island chain as enmeshed with Ireland and Scandinavia as with Europe and the Mediterranean. It was once an expanse that, as William of Newburgh feared, did consist of infinita regna, "infinite realms." This multiplicity of dominions varied in size, stability, duration, cultural composition. Though the island of Britain eventually came to be dominated by a single one of its kingdoms, this ascendant England never did fully absorb or anglicize the hybridity, the obdurate and enduring differences out of which it had been formed.

The Infinite Realms Project
Though their authors invoke many recent critics for their inspiration, the essays collected in Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain build upon long scholarly tradition, employing commodious frames for the study of what otherwise might be seen as isolated national literatures. Working almost a century ago, Roger Sherman Loomis could be said to be the first modern postcolonial theorist of the British Isles, arguing that English romance had absorbed (none too graciously) much of its material from Irish, Scottish, and Welsh sources, and implicitly linking this incorporation to the kingdom’s cultural conquest of its Celtic Fringe. Over time medievalists have refined such study of cultural imperialism and commingling, stressing the uneven arrangements of power inherent in cultural contact. This volume is in fact something of a companion to The Postcolonial Middle Ages, a collection of essays that attempted to emplace medieval texts within the context of a heterogeneous and self-divided world stretching from Britain to the shores of the Mediterranean. Our mission here is likewise that of provincializing England (to play upon the title of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe), of viewing the kingdom and its capital city within a lens so wide that it is no longer the world’s umbilicus, but one center among many, and not necessarily the actor of greatest importance.

Like more traditional scholarship in medieval studies, much postcolonial medieval analysis has tended to be international in its focus, placing England within a European context. Such a perspective is invaluable, especially because through examination of the crusades it typically stretches geographically to the Levant, effectively challenging any tendency towards parochialism. Yet this critical trajectory can sometimes lead too swiftly away from the archipelago where it commences. When England is tied more closely to distant nations and events than to the polities, peoples, and cultures with which the kingdom shared an island, and indeed a history, an understanding of the insular past in its full complexity can be constrained. Even in texts written within an England that might seem internally monolithic or homogenous, this book’s authors find portals to strangely contiguous other worlds where recalcitrant differences, abiding possibilities, and alternative histories vivaciously endure. Francophone Normans and Jews, for example, inhabited the kingdom from the eleventh century – as did at various times Flemings, Italians, Danes, Welsh, Irish, Scots. Though the Normans eventually assimilated into the population they had rendered subaltern in 1066, the Jews served as England’s most contemplated minority population even after wholesale expulsion in 1290. Because of their religious, cultural, and (in the terms of the day) racial difference, the Jews appear in medieval English texts with an obsessive regularity out of all proportion to their actual numbers in the country. Jewish presence therefore figures large in the essays that follow.

Since this volume undertakes to find truth in what William of Newburgh dismissed as a mere dream of an unbounded insular past, Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain could as easily have been entitled the Infinite Realms Project. Through close readings of medieval texts (some widely familiar, many less so), the contributors attempt to read England as a single – if singularly powerful -- entity within a dispersive geopolitical network, within a capacious world. The contributors to this volume seek moments of cultural admixture and heterogeneity within texts that have often been assumed to belong to a single, national canon, discovering moments when familiar and bounded space erupts with infinita regna, kingdoms without number. This sudden door opening in a neighborhood tumulus invites those who would listen to the stories told by its subterranean congregants to hear narratives conjoining England, Britain, Sicily, Bohemia, Wales, Scotland, Normandy: other realms and other worlds.

Suzanne Conklin Akbari opens the volume with an essay intimately connecting Anglo-Norman literature to a worldwide network of culture and power. “Between Diaspora and Conquest: Norman Assimilation in Marie de France’s Esope and Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis,” reexamines Anglo-Norman identity through the comparative study of Norman Sicily and England. Inspired by Horden and Purcell’s comparative Mediterranean history, Akbari argues that peoples are best understood as participants in vast cultural flows resting upon major geographical structures. Spanning Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, Norman culture of the Middle Ages was linked by sea routes that provided a economic and cultural continuity. Simultaneously, however, Norman identity evolved in dramatically different forms in France, England, Italy, and Sicily. In twelfth-century Sicily, Norman government sought to constitute a polity that sublimated ethnic and religious difference under the banner of the shared language of Arabic and a common administrative system. In twelfth-century England under Henry II, a heterogeneous collection of nations were also assimilated into a communal culture, but by very different means. Through a close reading of Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis and Marie de France’s Esope, Akbari illustrates how the emergence of the frame tale narrative in twelfth-century Norman England mirrored forms of cultural assimilation that were simultaneously taking place. In a coda to the essay, she considers the cultural resonance emerging from a Hebrew adaptation of Marie de France, “The Story of King Solomon’s Daughter.”

With “Reliquia: Writing Relics in Anglo-Norman Durham,” Heather Blurton continues the focus upon the Normans, this time in a regional English context. Whether the poem known as Durham represents the last gasp of Old English or the first breath of early Middle English has been the central question of the text’s analysis. Blurton considers this mediality from a different angle, reading the poem as a document produced in the midst of the power struggle in post-Conquest Durham. Like an Old English riddle that does not name its object of description, Durham omits mention of the city’s most distinctive feature, the spectacular cathedral under construction at the moment of its composition. The poem instead describes the relics of saintly English kings, abbots and bishops and enshrines them in a poem that is artfully crafted in Anglo-Saxon poetic form and language. The poem’s single macaronism, “reliquia,” is, in Blurton’s reading, the key to the work’s meaning. Durham offers itself simultaneously as a reliquary for the past as well as a relic of that past. Its language and poetic form suggest that the poem is of much greater antiquity than it is -- but not for purposes politically nostalgic. In the early twelfth century, the monks of Durham were diligently engaged in creating textual evidence to buttress their community’s claims specifically to Cuthbert’s patrimony, and more generally to the power of the monastic community of the cathedral priory against that of the bishop and castle. Instead of understanding Durham as a transitional text, suspended between Old and Middle English, Blurton sees the poem as caught between two structures of power in early Anglo-Norman Durham, between castle and cathedral.

David Townsend deepens this emphasis on language, vernacularity, and corporate identity with “Cultural Difference and the Meaning of Latinity in Asser’s Life of King Alfred.” The Welsh priest Asser’s text is often read as a principal site of ninth-century West Saxon hegemonic consolidation, the coming into being of Alfred’s English nation. Townsend argues, however, that this biographical account of Alfred’s rise to power contains in its rhetorical pragmatics an implicit, and often overlooked, assertion of enduring cultural diversity in Britain. Rather than obliterating differences among peoples in the service of a unitary, homogeneous, alienated perspective, Asser’s Latinity deploys the metropolitan language of early medieval high culture to maintain a space for local difference. Such difference must exist in tension with the assimilative claims of the newly ascendant vernacular, but it need not be obliterated or abandoned by those for whom it holds definitional power. The possibility of local positionalities being refracted through the medium of Asser’s Latinity suggests a far more complex model of the relationship of medieval Latin as a metropolitan language to the articulation of local subjectivities.

Cultural heterogeneity beneath what may appear to be monolithic sameness is also theme of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Green Children from Another World, or The Archipelago in England.” Cohen turns to a late twelfth-century Latin text to study how tensions around colonization and assimilation found “subterranean” voice in the long wake of the Norman conquest. The English historian William of Newburgh narrated a vivid tale of green children emerging from the ground in contemporary East Anglia. Seeming arrivals from a distant world, these strange siblings differed from their English discoverers in language, clothing, customs – differed, in the end, in their race. Yet neither the boy nor the girl is as alien as they initially appeared. Once taught to eat local food, they lose their viridescence; once taught to speak English, they narrate their origin in a land that for all its distance touches England intimately. The account of the Green Children surfaces two stories that William of Newburgh cannot otherwise tell: how the Normans who had conquered the kingdom had vanished from the country without ever leaving, and how the contemporary nation had never come adequately to terms with the Britain that it pretended to have subsumed, with the archipelago of cultural difference and intractable hybridity dwelling still within.

Michael Wenthe likewise studies the difficulties of supposing discrete and enduring collective identities after the Norman conquest. “Beyond British Boundaries in the Historia regum Britanniae” argues that in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur's preeminence among the insular regents paradoxically depends upon his challenge to traditional understanding and preservation of British peoplehood. Arthur begins his reign as a champion who restores his people's fortunes within the island, but ends as the master of an international empire drawing allies drawn from diverse geographies. Arthur's federated approach to rule and his accommodation of foreigners among his counselors temper the force of British domination and ultimately color the sense of Britishness itself. The king's efforts to extend the British nation beyond Britain (and beyond Britons) challenge the conception of Britishness established by the nation-founder Brutus, rooted in ethnicity and place. Arthur's move toward hybridization and against traditional binarisms is thwarted by Mordred's rebellion, a rejection spurred by atavistic desire for a simpler expression of identity that depends on a purity imposed through exclusion. The limits of both Arthur's model of nationhood and Mordred's response can be seen in Arthur's failure to sustain his achievement and in Geoffrey's supersessionistic history, a history that repeatedly chronicles the replacement of one dominant group within Britain by another.

Kathleen Biddick extends this focus upon Geoffrey of Monmouth and island identities in “Arthur’s Two Bodies and the Bare Life of the Archives.” Biddick examines how the History of the Kings of Britain constitutes a formative moment in the medieval fabrication of what Ernst Kantorowicz called “the king’s two bodies,” the enduring body politic and the mortal body natural. Biddick demonstrates how archival practices were intrinsic to this invention, lodging themselves deep within Geoffrey’s text. The essay observes how the accounts of the Pipe Rolls trace the bureaucratic involvement of archdiaconal circles (in which Geoffrey moved) with the Crown; it examines archdiaconal anxieties over petty geographical jurisdiction as expressed in the Leges Edwardi Confessoris (Laws of Edward the Confessor), and it traces their theological notions of sovereignty as echoed in Norman Anonymous. According to Biddick, Geoffrey stages the archival violence at stake in fabricating the king’s second, divine body by bracketing his History with massacre, employing the Latin cognates of caedes [“carnage, slaughter”] to form these brackets. His use of massacre converges with contemporary Jewish concepts of the archive as the porphyrion, a vestment capable of transcribing every drop of blood of massacred Jews. The essay reflects on the political theology of mundane bureaucratic archives and archives of trauma at the edges of Geoffrey’s history.

As residents in a nation dissimilar in custom, ritual language, and religion, Jews in England found themselves objects of cultural fascination even after the Expulsion of 1290. Randy P. Schiff examines the role Jews played in a text composed after this forced departure. “The Instructive Other Within: Secularized Jews in The Siege of Jerusalem” argues that the alliterative romance should be read in the context of the contemporary collapse of the fantasy of English insular overlordship. Scholars have recoiled at the Siege’s endorsement of violence inflicted on Jews, reading the siege as Christ’s vengeance upon the citizens of Jerusalem. Schiff warns, however, that given the poem’s problematization of clear ethnic identification, critics should be hesitant to ascribe to the text a simple or reductive understanding of what the figure of the Jew means. Reflecting upon a Britain enmeshed in the painful, often violent process of border-formation, the author portrays the Jews as daunting insurgents rather than religious purists, undermining the theological pretensions of a Roman war machine – a machine motivated more by plunder than by its putative Christianity. By manipulating his sources to make a refusal of tribute trigger the Roman invasion, the Siege-poet links the Jews with the Arthurian rebels of romance, a genre ambivalently situated with respect to English empire. Apparently originating in western Yorkshire, the text speaks more to the bloody raids and sieges conducted by the Scots and English in the process of forming British borders —and perhaps also to the trauma of the 1190 massacre of Jews in Clifford’s Tower in York—than it does to abstract theological interests. Much as the Jew, for Langland, acts as ethical instructor to English society, so does the Siege of Jerusalem secularize its narrative events so as to release the ambivalent energies of a Jewish Other who reveals the limits of an unchecked English expansionism.

Katherine Terrell brings us to the center of the Scotland at the edges of Schiff’s essay with “Subversive Histories: Strategies of Identity in Scottish Historiography.” Terrell examines Scottish historiographical responses to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s myth of Brutus, a myth that repeatedly invoked in support of England’s colonialist ambitions toward Scotland. Discussing responses to Geoffrey’s myth in early fourteenth-century diplomatic texts and John of Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum, the essay argues that even as Scottish chroniclers established spatial and temporal boundaries to enforce the idea of a natural and autonomous Scottish identity, their persistently dialogic engagement with Geoffrey’s text reveals the hybridity underlying their constructions of identity. These chroniclers’ responses to Geoffrey cannot therefore be simply characterized as either unambiguously hostile or as complicit in what R. R. Davies has called the “Anglicization of the British Isles.” Rather, Terrell contends, the chroniclers resist English aggression as much by appropriating and adapting Geoffrey’s highly effective narrative strategies as by directly challenging his authority.

Jon Kenneth Williams looks closely at the literature of another people who felt the force of English expansionism throughout the Middle Ages, the Welsh. “Sleeping with an Elephant: Wales and England in the Mabinogion” proposes that several pieces of Middle Welsh literature lay a theoretical groundwork that would enable the Welsh to perpetuate their language and culture in an age of seemingly inalterable foreign political and military occupation. "Culhwch and Olwen," the oldest Arthurian narrative, describes the island of Britain as a geography always and already marked by invasion and colonization, negating the Welsh myth of entitlement to the whole of the island. "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" in turn encourages its audience to be of service to the occupier, literarily Roman but historically English, so that the Welsh language might be preserved. Finally, the third branch of the Mabinogi, "Manawydan Son of Llyr," uses (in Williams’ account) gentle satire to acknowledge the inescapable economic might of England. In so doing, the work playfully draws into sharp relief the twin worlds of the Wales of myth and the England of the medieval market economy, providing a vision of Welsh ability that is both striking optimistic and pragmatic.

Legendary histories, mythic foundations, and practical political considerations are likewise at the heart of John Ganim’s “Chaucer and the War of the Maidens.” Scholars have long puzzled why in the Knight's Tale Chaucer so severely shortens the spectacular battle against the Amazons as it was developed in his chief source, Boccaccio's Teseide, depending instead on the briefer account in Statius' Thebeid. Ganim speculates that the Amazonian materials acquired a new, unstable charge with the arrival of Anne of Bohemia and her marriage to Richard II. It is likely that the stories of the legendary founding of Prague by a prophetic female leader and through an associated battle against Amazon-like women (usually referred to as the "War of the Maidens") accompanied Anne and her courtiers to England. Recent scholarship on Queen Anne has provided a new window into our understanding of Chaucer and his culturally complex poetry. Ganim’s contribution to this new emphasis is to suggest that traces of the legendary history of Bohemia can be located in the political unconscious of the Knight's Tale and perhaps in Chaucer's intricate deployment of gender as local topic and as political metaphor. Even it is impossible to prove that Chaucer was aware of the cultural freight of the female foundation of Queen Anne's homeland, Ganim provocatively points to striking analogues to the ways in which Chaucer deploys the powers of his Bohemianized women. In those works by Chaucer connected in some fashion to Anne and her native land, he finds an uncannily similar dispersal and division of female power.

Eileen Joy also details how gender functions in tales of violent masculine adventure and cultural colonization in her temporally intercut essay “The Signs and Location of a Flight (or Return?) of Time: The Old English Wonders of the East and the Gujarat Massacre” Joy places the mass sexual mutilation, torture, and brutal murder of hundreds of Muslim women in Gujarat alongside the lines of the Old English Wonders of the East describing Alexander’s murder of giant women “unworthy in their bodies.” She argues that we can glimpse in both events a violence that can be understood to participate in what Dominick LaCapra, writing about the Holocaust, has described as a “deranged sacrificialism.” Such violence is occasioned by the attempt to get rid of stranger-Others as “phobic or ritually impure objects” that are believed to pollute the Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people). Both cases—one terrifyingly real, the other purely fictional—also reveal persistent social anxieties about the female body as formless contagion. Out of the horror and disgust that arises in the encounter with the female body perceived as monstrous, Joy traces an ancient and ritualized type of violence that is both morally condemnatory and ecstatic, and which can be seen, to a greater and more restrained degree, respectively, in the Gujarat genocide and the Old English text.

Eileen Joy’s essay leaves us in the very place we began: in a world that is culturally complicated, full of brutality based upon real and imagined differences, not much closer than medieval England was to realizing that the Other Worlds we banish to our undergrounds are in fact coextensive with our own.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Postcard from NYC: Beowulf is everywhere

So I was walking down 14th street today, having left Morningside Heights for a meeting with a professor downtown at NYU. I was, it must be said, minding my own business. Suddenly I see a rather gruesome looking -- hand, on a poster. I note the Tolkien-esque calligraphic font used for the title -- but I'm still not reading it, because my brain hasn't quite kicked into gear for that yet. I practically fell over once my focus came back:

All this raises a question, dear readers: Where will you be on November 16th?

Grendel's mom wants to know.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Giants' Ring / Giants' Dance

(for earlier posts on this topic, see At Avebury and Augustine, a giant's tooth, and particles of alterity. These are all part of a larger project on what the Middle Ages made of the prehistoric)


The fascination that Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain exerted can be accounted for in two ways. Geoffrey gave to Britain a far deeper past than it had ever previously possessed, and he promulgated as part of that history the charismatic figure of King Arthur. Geoffrey filled a silent, empty space in Britain's prehistory with durable content. He did so not by obliterating what little he found in that past, but by giving fragments gleaned from other texts a fullness, a vivaciousness, a new life. The Trojan Brutus he takes from a scant narrative found in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, growing the original story into the Aeneid in miniature. Geoffrey's Arthur emerges from his interweaving of vague references to a Welsh war leader into a coherent and compelling monarch whose conquests resemble nothing so much as those of contemporary Norman kings. Without Geoffrey's vision of earliest Britain as strangely contemporary place, the genre of romance would never have assumed the contours it came to possess, so attractive was the alternative (and secular, and marvelous) vision of history he offered. Arthurian literature could not have burgeoned without Geoffrey's creation of its primal scene in the History. The consensual world which the History of the Kings of Britain established invited medieval artists to add their own narratives, their own images, animating Arthur and Merlin and Guenevere through continuous dilation and frequent change.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's giants are an aboriginal population against whom the first settlers to Britain must wage genocidal war. Gogmagog, their leader, is executed by being hurled from a clifftop, plummeting to "a sharp reef of rocks, where he was dashed to a thousand fragments and stained the waters with his blood." The place of his spectacular death is known thereafter as "Gogmagog's Leap." Yet despite the action inherent in the designation, the toponym captures not a life in motion but an enduring arrest, an eternal fall from which Gogmagog – ever about to be smashed to blood and fragments by looming rocks -- will not escape: "Gogmagog's Leap," not "Gogmagog's Death." After the giants are cleansed from the land by the flood of newly arriving Trojan immigrants, moreover, we encounter more of the monsters. Just as in the Bible David fights one of the giants present after the Deluge, so in Geoffrey's History King Arthur will battles the giant of Mont Saint Michel.

Old English poetry is full of dark meditations on unnamed ruins. These crumbling remnants of human habitations may be Roman cities, like Bath; they could as easily be generic devastated architectures, since no specific history anchors them in the stream of time. In elegies like "The Wanderer" such windswept piles of stones are simply but ambiguously "the old work of giants, standing abandoned" (eald enta geweorc idlu stodon). Geoffrey of Monmouth is the first medieval author to attach primal architects to the Neolithic structures that intruded into his present. The History of the Kings of Britain speaks of Stonehenge and possibly Avesbury. Aurelius Ambrosius, a glorious king of the Britons and the uncle of Arthur, defeats at great cost the Saxons who have invaded his island. Desiring to construct for his fallen men a monument capable of memorializing them eternally, he
collected carpenters and stone-masons together from every region and ordered them to use their skill to contrive some novel building which would stand for ever in memory of such distinguished men. The whole band racked their brains and then confessed themselves beaten.

To conceive this "novel building" that can do justice to the story it incarnates, Aurelius must commission the prophet Merlin. No one, we are told, possesses greater skill "either in foretelling the future or in mechanical contrivances." A prophet and an engineer (rather than the magician he will become in later literature), Merlin was introduced in the narrative as the son of a cloistered nun and an "incubus demon" – the product, that is, of the kind of trans-species sex that usually engenders giants. Giants are in Old English literature builders of structures from time out of memory; a giant, Nimrod, was also supposed to have been the architect of the Tower of Babel. These monsters indeed form an integral part of Merlin's solution to Aurelius's architectural quandary, for he declares:
'If you want to grace the burial place of these men with some lasting monument ... send for the Giants' Ring which is on Mount Killarus in Ireland. In that place there is a stone construction which no man of this period could ever erect, unless he combined great skill and artistry. The stones are enormous and there is no one strong enough to move them. If they are placed in position round this site, in which they are erected there, they will stand forever ... These stones are connected to certain secret religious rites ... Many years ago the Giants transported them from the remotest confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland at a time when they inhabited that country ... There isn't a single stone among them which hasn't some medicinal virtue.'
Entranced by this vision of an eternally persisting, eternally powerful construction, Aurelius commands that Merlin, Uther Pendragon, and fifteen thousand men set sail immediately for Ireland. There they meet Gillomanius, an Irish king incredulous that anyone would sail to his island to swipe big rocks. Gillomanius declares nonetheless that only over his dead body will the "minutest fragment of the Ring" be stolen. The Britons are happy to oblige, obliterating the Irish forces. Merlin then urges the Britons to attempt to move the rocks. Though they employ "every conceivable kind of mechanism ... They rigged up hawsers and ropes ad they propped up scaling ladders," no contrivance budges the unyielding stone.

Laughing at these attempts to alter a structure so powerful, Merlin easily dismantles the Ring with unnamed gear and places the megaliths aboard the waiting ships. He transports the disassembled ring to Britain and with precision rebuilds it upon the burial mound: "Merlin obeyed the King's orders and put the stones up in a circle round the sepulchre, in exactly the same way they had been arranged on Mount Kilaraus in Ireland, thus proving that his artistry was worth more than any brute strength." Whereas the Irish king can discern in the Giants' Ring only dead rock, Merlin – like the Ring's original architects -- realizes that in their clefts and beneath their coldness the megaliths harbor ancient power: the ability to cure ailing bodies, the ability to do justice to the dead, the ability to memorialize that which would otherwise be forgotten. True, he steals the stones from their native place and erects them where they will forever be out of place: like a later day archaeologist transporting Mayan artifacts from Mexico or marble sculpture from Greece he has no confidence that the people living with these artworks can appreciate their beauty or their history. Geoffrey apparently approves of the decision to relocate the Giant's Ring, for its founders seem no longer to be present in Ireland (the dwindled age of men has long been in progress there), and in Britain the Ring becomes the gravesite not only of Aurelius and his soldiers, but of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon. Arthur's cousin and successor to the throne, Constantine, will be interred there as well ("They buried him by the side of Utherpendragon, within the circle of stones called Stonehenge in the English language, which had been built with such wonderful skill not far from Salisbury"). Arthur, of course, will find no resting place, assumed as he is to the mysterious Isle of Avalon.

From Africa to Ireland to Britain, from giants to men, a ring of megaliths that should be so massive as to be immobile moves through time and across geographies. Merlin's gift is his ability to recognize the ancient history of the stone circle and add to that story another one, a living story oriented as much towards present and future as it is towards the commemoration of the past. Merlin sees in the stones the life they harbor: they are not dead remnants of a lost race, but the living incarnation of that race's presence, and mediators of new relations to history and remembering. Though full of giants and battles that never were, the narrative also conveys something of the truth of Stonehenge. Medieval people knew very well that stone ring was the product not of magic but ancient technology. A manuscript illustration in the 1440 version of the Scala Mundi contains a fairly accurate, birds-eye depiction of four trilithons (two immense pillars capped by a lintel); tenon joints are shown graven the lintels. The rocks of Stonehenge were not transported from Ireland, but they did arrive from a distance: perhaps twenty miles across Salisbury Plain for the sarsen stones, and an unknown distance for the outer rings, fashioned from bluestone that originated in the Preseli mountains, 135 miles distant in west Wales.

Geoffrey added Hiberno-African origins to Stonehenge, an addition that at least acknowledged the alien provenance of some of the structure's stones, as well as granting the whole of the architecture an origin a time and culture different from Geoffrey's own. Geoffrey was no Augustine, and his Stonehenge has no story to tell about the Great Flood or anything else found in the bible. His Latin phrase for the transported monument is chorea gigantum, a "Giants' Circle" but also a "Giant's Dance." That kinetic wording seems especially appropriate considering the life Geoffrey discerns in the stones, the vitality he insists resides in their depths.

(the image of a giant helping Merlin to construct Stonehenge is from British Library Egerton 3028 Fol30r. It is taken from a 14th C version of Wace's Brut and is the first known illustration of Stonehenge)

Trevi fountain runs red

When I first saw in today's NYT that someone had dyed the waters of Rome's Trevi fountain blood red, I thought: "It's a clichéed commentary about the Iraq war." Then I read the following:
As soon as it was clear that the 18th-century Baroque fountain had not been seriously damaged, intellectuals and art critics began reconsidering the gesture as something nearing genius.

“Once the indignation had died down, we rediscovered the Fountain of Trevi,” said Roberto D’Agostino, an Italian blogger. “It’s a resurrection of Andy Warhol, the act of highlighting an object of mass consumption.”

A box found near the fountain held leaflets signed “Ftm Futurist Action 2007,” a reference to Futurism, the early 20th-century art movement that advocated a violent break with the past. The fliers said that the act was, in part, a protest of the cost of the Rome Film Fest, which runs until Saturday, and that the color referred to the event’s red carpet.

It is a lackluster festival, said a media critic, Gianluca Nicoletti, “with no depth, no color.”

The red of red carpets? A condemnation of a lackluster film festival? I think I prefer the clichéed Iraq war commentary. But then ...

Photographs by tourists and a video captured a man, baseball cap pulled low, flinging the dye and hurrying off. News reports have identified him as Graziano Cecchini, a 54-year-old artist.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, he was asked if he was the man in the photographs. “Who knows?” he answered.

“If it had been me, wink wink, I’d say that this had been a media-savvy operation in the face of a very gray society,” he said.

He said he had taken refuge in an undisclosed location with the photographer Oliviero Toscani, known for his bold, iconoclastic work for Benetton clothing.

“We see the same thing,” he said, citing a comment by Mr. Toscani about the fountain’s new color in the newspaper Corriere della Sera, “Rome that’s still menstruating, Rome that has not entered menopause yet, can still have children, is still fertile.”

Menstrual blood? Artistic fertility? Blood is seldom coded as feminine and positive in western art. All of a sudden Trevi art project became very interesting indeed.

For more on this topic, see this post, a review of Peggy McCracken's work on blood, a book that does intriguing things with medieval silences around menstruation. For a moving meditation on how a female artist might attempt to speak something unbearable through bleeding upon her art, see Joanne Leonard's photoessay in Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. Both these works are personal favorites; Joanne Leonard is in fact an artist whose work has been inspirational to me for a very long time. We even once collaborated on a failed project called Imaginary Geographies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Catching Up

Regular readers of ITM will have noticed that I do not post as frequently as I have in the past. I've been concentrating on some important Chair-related tasks, such as moving via faculty consensus to a departmental mission statement (English departments are such diverse places that only someone who has worked in one for a long time will fully appreciate how difficult that kind of summary of interests and commitment to a particular formulation of community really are). Recognizing that we do not do enough to foster extracurricular intellectual community among our undergraduates, I also proposed a new administrative position, the Director of Undergraduate Study. I've been begging for money; right now I have a waiting list of five faculty members for whom my department cannot afford to purchase printers (yes, GW is the most expensive university in the country and I can't buy printers for faculty). I've also been overseeing the first meetings of our new Medieval and Early Modern Studies Seminar. Meanwhile the new website is about to go live, the fall 2008 schedule is due, I am teaching a brand new course in the spring called Myths of Britain, I have to meet with twenty-five faculty members about their annual reports ... and somewhere in there I have to reconstitute my Holloway Lecture for next month, the latest version of which was swiped along with my laptop.

So, memo to self: when someone asks you to do something, pull a Nancy Reagan and use your spouse as a ventriloquist dummy Just Say No. I'm already in danger of not making the many deadlines that are converging on my scholarly obligations. I'm going to have to do some serious paring just to stay afloat. So before you ask, the answer is no. Don't email me for anything, because you will get a reply with only word, and that word will be NO.

I should also add that ever since my laptop was stolen a Tiny Cloud of Doom has hovered over my head. I want to stress that it is a Tiny Doom Cloud rather than a Major Doom Cloud, so I've been plagued by bad karma and dumb mistakes rather than earthquakes, tornadoes, and locusts. Mostly these errors have been catalyzed by lapses of record keeping: not double checking to see that I'd submitted all of my twenty-five annual report cover letters, for example. But some have been errors of judgment.

OK, look for posts with actual content in the not too distant future. I just received an email from Apple that my new laptop has been shipped. Is that a ray of pallid sun I behold breaking through the Tiny Cloud?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Monster Theory (Lytton Smith)

(The following is excerpted from the sequence "Monster Theory," in Lytton Smith's forthcoming chapbook, to be published by the Poetry Society of America in Februray 2008. Several other medieval-leaning poems are in the book; I recommend the work highly for its crystalline elegance and its sonorousness. The poems are composed by an artist with a love of words and sound; they beg to be read aloud. I apologize for screwing up the mis en page of the poetry sequence below. See also this post).

Monster Theory

It is always at the outset a displacement—
[the monster] is fragment, obscured glance,
suspicion, boneshard, is one town over
and can be seen footprint or silhouette
at the Gates of Difference, dependent
on their unlocking. It does not test
the height of the wall, try to scale it;
is bound to rules even in deformity.

All knowledge is local, all cartographies sketched
with a lead of local origin and coloured with dye from the petals
of flowers picked and crushed in nearby woods.
All cartographers are men and all their wives,
their thimble and needle wives, would not understand
the sense of scale that such men are forced into:
how borders fit within the boundaries of a singlesheet.

Pattern: [the monster] sated, moving on just before the townsfolk
uncover its lair in a rabble of pitchfork and brandish. The walls of
the cave are without painting: [the monster], incapable of literal or
emotional representation, is incapable of art. The thrown flicker of
torches reveals red daub: blood of cattle of flock of the missing
daughters of the pastor and the blacksmith. In the absence of bone
or skeleton, the librarian proffers two readings: [the monster] has
devoured all remnants of his slaughter; [the monster] bears
trophies. In the recess of the cave, a huddle of swan feathers
crudely sharpened: instruments of torture, blood-hardened.
Rumour: two anxious and too young sentries posted at the cave
entrance—[the monster] always escaping always returns—the mob
empty-hands its way into town where their wives and daughters are
not waiting and candles are not kept burning in the windows.
Rumour: [the monster] come upon, nor’wards and asleep, by a
single shepherd who dared not take life in his own hands. Rumour:
on [the monster’s] bare torso, a map cut as if by jagged knives. His
body a readable text.

(from the chapbook's back matter)
Monster Theory is the title of a collection of essays edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen; his
introductory essay, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” provided the inspiration and a
number of key phrases for “Monster Theory” and I owe a debt to his scholarship,
especially regarding how present the medieval is.

Biographical Note:
Lytton Smith lives in New York City, where he studies Anglo-Saxon literature, plays
in goal for Division United, and, with Tom Haushalter, runs the Blind Tiger Poets, a
group that helps promote books of poetry.

What is the #1 paper downloaded from the Humanities Research Network?

Well, fuck, what do you think it would be?

Seriously, though, this new space for humanities scholars to share work in progress looks promising. The site needs some period specific designations to rub shoulders with the vast categories of American Literature and English & Commonwealth Literature. Even the smaller designations like Disability Studies seem a bit random, considering what is not yet present. Still, the website bears watching. Its social science counterpart has certainly become a force.

More information and some background here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Returning to Poetry

Just back from a brief family sojourn to the Outer Banks (or OBX as all the bumper stickers read). We took advantage of an elementary school "professional day" off to enjoy three days of wind, sea, kites, and hikes across sand dunes ... what could be better?

Well, one thing: returning to find that Dan Remein has composed a poem that takes as one of its points of departure an ITM post I composed in the summer, "Who mourns for Lindow Man?" Dan's piece even acknowledges my daughter, the spur for the post. How cool is that? See Dan's own post "dedicating poems to the children of people i have never met." Dan, I hope we do meet some day.

In other poetry news, Lytton Smith is publishing an eight page poem series that recasts, adapts, and spins away from an ancient essay of mine, "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)." The sequence will be published as part of a chapbook next February. Perhaps in the near future Lytton will allow an excerpt to premiere here. Lytton?

I care about my work scholarly enough that I find it gratifying to have someone, anyone, find something useful in it. Scholars create, and many scholars are poets; my co-bloggers prove that. Yet to have a poet create something new out of a blog post or an old essay makes me especially happy.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

How About Them Fightin' Binaries?

"False Accusations" in Anita Guerreau-Jalabert's Motif-Index of French Arthurian Verse Romances XIIth-XIIIth Cent. lists two entries under K2119(G), "Man Falsely Accused of Homosexuality": Escanor 1636-1858, and Lanval 221-326. I don't have Escanor handy (nor have I ever read it), but for convenience's sake I can at least give you a bit of Lanval. When Lanval spurns Guinevere's advances, she famously accuses him of preferring something other than women:
Vus n'amez gueres cel delit.
Asez le m'ad hum dit sovent
Que des femmez n'avez talent.
Vallez avez bien afeitiez,
Ensemble od eus vus deduiez.

You don't much like this delight. Men have told me often that you don't like women. You prefer to please yourself with a group of well-hung (or "well-bred," "well-trained," or even "well-dressed": see See the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, s. v. "afaiter") servants (or 'young man of noble birth (serving a lord).' 'boy, male child,' '(young) gentleman (below the rank of knight),' 'man of rank below squire and above craftsman,' &c. s. v., "vadlet").

The accusation in Éneas is equally well-known. Upon learning of her daughter's love for Eneas, the queen of Latium tries to scare her off her love by reminding her of Dido and by declaring "il n'a gaires de femme cure" (he doesn't care at all for women), but that he rather "prise plus lo ploin mestier," that is, that he prefers "garcon." (Yunck does this as "he prefers the opposite trade," which, with James Schultz in mind, I'm not convinced is a good trans. But I can't quite figure out how to translate "ploin," even with the Godefroy dictionary (available online through the BNF). Help? Does anyone have Simon Gaunt's Gender and Genre handy to compare his translation of this passage?)

Here's what's troubling me: last weekend, I saw Karma Lochrie speak, and I learned about the ahistoricality of "heteronormativity" as a category for doing medieval studies. This morning, I read the James Schultz essay Eileen transmitted to us through James Paxson's suggestion (see here, and for another discussion of Schultz, see Nicola Masciandaro here), where I read that Thomas Aquinas, for example:
arranged the species of lust according to their relation to reason (children must be raised by married parents) and to nature (the natural end of sex is procreation). Best are those "venereal acts" that respect reason and nature (the union of husband and wife desiring children), worse are those that violate reason, since they are outside marriage (fornication, seduction, adultery, rape), and worst of all "is the vice against nature, which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow" (masturbation, sodomy, bestiality).
In other words, Aquinas did not arrange sex--or nature for that matter--on a hetero/homo continuum, but predominantly along one oriented or disoriented towards reproduction in marriage, which, as Schultz takes great pains to emphasize, does not equal heterosexuality.

I remember how many ways there were to being sexual in the Xian Middle Ages. Sex acts need not determine sexual orientation. Certain objects--young boys--inspire samesex acts in certain situations without, however, demanding that the sexual actor possess a sexual identity. Furthermore, as Kłosowska demonstrates, Lanval does not defend himself by declaring himself "straight": nothing in his language distinguishes his own love as not samesex (135). Masculinity might require that the clothes of a man be bedecked with flowers "as it were a meede" or even that a man be "meeke as is a mayde," while in Bérinus handsome King Agriano banishes all women from his kingdom and 'presents his men with a hundred good-looking men'; the realm eventually fails, not due to some feminine lack of prowess, but for lack of children (see the discussion in Kłosowska at 88 and elsewhere).

Some ways of being sexual were of course not being sexual: refusing sex in marriage; refusing to get married; refusing to get remarried. There were erotic unions with Christ. We should think, too, of alternate familia in the Xian Middle Ages: communities of hermits, of nuns, of beguines, of monks, of Christina of Markyate, who becomes head of her own family after setting up a kind of family with Abbot Geoffrey. All these family arrangements looked in many ways like the reproductively oriented family of opposite sex couples, but they also presented a variety of challenges to the presumptive naturalness or superiority of that model. With all this in mind, of course it's ahistorical to think in terms of medieval sexual binaries.

Yet I'm troubled by the accusations of loving garcon or vallez. I'm troubled that Guerreau-Jalabert has no entry on "Man falsely accused of being a vowed widower" or "Woman falsely accused of being a beguine." I'm troubled, in short, because when push comes to shove, the spurned women of medieval romance often resort to accusations of, well, let's not call it sodomy, but they never (?) select a charge from any of the other medieval ways of being or not being sexual. Is there, in other words, a binary at work?

Certainly compared to Eileen and Jeffrey, and also certainly compared to some of our readers, I'm woefully under-read and underthought in both gay and queer history and thought, so I may be asking a foolish question. Better I be foolish here than someplace I can't thank you right away. Yes?

Interesting note (to me) on Lanval: in the Middle English "Sir Launfal," Guinevere says only this:
Fy on the, thou coward!
Anhongeth worth thou hye and hard!
That thou ever were ybore!
That thou lyvest, hyt ys pyté!
Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the -
Thou were worthy forlore! (685-90)
Can we make a good guess to account for the change from Marie?
(ps: a scene from my youth)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is it wrong to spurn the gifts of nature?

I've been out of blogging for weeks now, self-pityingly swamped under the TT job that the current market demands I experience with gratitude or, at least, stoicism (edit: which is not to say that the BC job sucks. It doesn't. My complaint is with the market itself and with the insidious nexus of deferred pleasure, the pleasures of stoicism, and reward). Here I dip in my 5 toes (holding 5 in reserve), having read through the recent posts on time, desire, and disaggregation by Eileen, Jeffrey, and Mary Kate, and having nearly finished the Kłosowska that all of us seem to be reading. I have, however, only a few questions for you, one of which I'm posting now. You must wait, perhaps forever, for my longer posts, one on the conservativism of students (why oh why do they resist understanding Pearl as oneiric sexual harassment? why do they demand the Nebuchadnezzar of the opening chapters of Daniel be the same person throughout, a mere character, rather than a shifting set of differing narrative machines?: have I just written my post?), and another on Karma Lochrie speaking, as last Saturday I saw Karma Lochrie speaking at my alma/amara mater, and my wondering about thinking with the "not present" as a way to circumvent or, better yet, to overflow the impasse of Reproductive Futurity.

Below, Eileen quoted Schultz quoting Boccaccio commenting on Dante's placement of Priscian among the sodomites:
Dante put him there “to represent those who teach his doctrine, since the majority of them are believed to be tainted with that evil. For most of their students are young; and being young, are timorous and obey both the proper and the improper demands of their teacher. And because the students are so accessible, it is believed that the teachers often fall into this sin."

In moral literature of (at least) the late Middle Ages, certain ages have certain appropriate or, rather, expected sins. Young people--Chaucer's Squire, for instance--are expected to be lusty; and the old are expected to be backbiting and envious, likely because of their impotence (as one lyric runs, "Elde makiþ me geld and growen al grai (Old age makes me impotent (literally: castrate) and all grey)). This raises two questions: the first is whether the potent leeky old man ("hoor head and grene tayl") would be monstrous or even queer because of its possession of a working cock it should not have: any medieval examples spring to mind? Is the lusty old man almost always an incestuous father?

The second, which drove me to this question in the first place, is on the naturalness of this desire for boys. Which, by the way Interpol, I am not endorsing. This is, Interpol, an academic question. Young women are presented as naturally desirable; old women as repugnant. Think of the Wife of Bath's tale, where the possibility of marrying the old wyf shocks the rapist (and presumably the Wife's audience, themselves faced with the desires--and desirability--of an older woman) into horror.

Are young boys, then, also naturally desirable? If the sin is expected, is Priscian's crime not running against nature but rather not resisting nature by compelling himself into desiring the (im)proper object? I think of 4 Macabees, which I just taught, in which the tyrant Antiochus demands that Eleazar eat pork: he doesn't demand that Eleazar sin or spurn God. He demands only this: "Why, when nature has granted it to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal? It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature" (4 Maccabees 5:8-9). My point, my little point for now, is this: Eleazar's virtue is precisely his unnaturalness, and Priscian's crime is being altogether too natural. In this, where do we locate the properly sexual?

On departmental web pages

Those of us who are faculty know the routine: every now and then, in response to the fact that the department website is five years out of date, we are asked to update our biography and list our recent publications. I've been working on mine. Ho hum. Especially compared to the web entry for Cornell's Cary Howie. Note the rakish Derrida just above CH's own portrait. His bio:
Cary Howie, Assistant Professor of French Literature, received his B.A. in Literature from Bard College (1997) and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University (1999, 2003). He was a Mellon Postdoctoral Associate in Romance Studies at Cornell from 2003 to 2005. His idées fixes include saints, sparkle, sex and style. He writes and teaches about the French and Italian Middle Ages in relation to literary theory, theology, and queer studies.

Why can't I be about "saints, sparkle, sex and style"? Then again, I was jealous here not that long ago about Cary's book title, Claustrophilia.

OK, I'm off to work and my sparkle. How does one do that?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"But History has already written that story": Heroes and Narrative

The scene: 17th century Japan. Hiro, a young man from the 21st century, has accidentally landed here after attempting to employ a superpower he has recently developed. Hiro can stop time. Apparently he can also time-travel. In last week's episode of Heroes (a show just entering its second season on NBC), Hiro's found a way to write notes in the 17th century that will survive into the 20th and be found by his friend Ando, kept safe inside the hilt of a sword used by the legendary Takezo Kensei. Takezo Kensei has been Hiro's idol since childhood, when his father told him stories of the great warrior. Arriving in the 17th century, Hiro finds that Kensei is not only a drunkard and a middling warrior at best -- but he's not even Japanese. He's English, a traveler. And yet he's supposed to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.

An initial excerpt from Hiro's monologues in the episode:

"Righting History and turning Takezo Kensei into a hero will not be easy. But at least I'm not alone. Ando, I've met the most beautiful woman Japan has ever seen, and I think I've fallen in love with her. The only problem? History has already written that story, and she is destined to be the great love of Takezo Kensei...It was clear Kensei wouldn't become a hero unless I forced him to learn the hard way. If he could defeat the ninty Angry Ronin, he'd have a chance at becoming a hero."

Hiro does Kensei the favor of dropping him off with the ninety Angry Ronin, and leaving him there to either "become" a hero or die. Of course, Kensei has a superpower too -- he can recover from any wound. He is, however, unwilling to use his superpower "wisely" -- i.e., for the good, or the good as Hiro sees it. Part of helping Kensei "fulfill" his destiny means that Hiro must give up a woman he believes he's in love with. The victory over the Ronin solidifies Kensei's place in the Princess' affections.

Later in the episode, Hiro is ready to leave: Kensei asks him how he's supposed to become the warrior he's "destined" to be if Hiro isn't with him. My point in summarizing this lengthy series of scenes from last week's episode is that it bears certain, if tenuous, relations with what I'm hoping to write about as I continue my dissertation prospectus. Thinking through the idea of history necessarily means asking questions about narrative: that much is obvious. Heroes, however, is coming at it from another angle.

Hiro seems to be playing a role that's difficult to imagine. Hiro's influence in the past -- pointing Takezo Kensei toward his "destiny", hoping to restore a timeline somehow made different by his presence there. Hiro remarks on the way in which "History" writes stories -- and has in fact already written the one he's in -- yet his work in the past (if you can call it that) creates the very stories he's claiming as a kind of inherited tradition.

I guess what's fascinating here is the way in which Hiro's position is that of the disembodied "History" he speaks of when he remarks that "History has already written that story." Of course, as viewers (co-conspirators?) we know that Hiro is only partially correct. History hasn't written the story -- or more precisely, hasn't written it yet. What's intriguing is that History -- in the form of Hiro -- has already heard the story - and knew it, in fact, in advance of arriving on the scene as an historical agent.

Heroes, I think, takes an interesting position vis a vis history and the role the subject can play in it (whether or not the writers are aware of it, though I'd like to think they know exactly what they're doing). History arrives from the future (literally in this case) and inscribes a narrative, a trajectory, where before were inert forces, empty lives and silent stones. JJC writes below that in encountering Barber rock at Avebury, My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires. Hiro's dilemma in this episode of Heroes is that he knows history must be written as he has already heard it -- yet his desire is that it be written differently, perhaps even Otherwise.

I'm mixing a variety of thoughts in this post, which is the product of a long drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier today. However, I think it's a productive mix: Caught between the stories he knows and the feelings he's developed for the Princess who is meant to love Kensei, Hiro's role as agent of History (or History incarnate) becomes mixed: his loyalties divided, he's caught between the past as he Knows it and the future he wants for himself. I wonder if there's a way of thinking through this odd relationship between Hiro, Heroes and the past that could be a productive exercise towards examining the writing of other historiographies. What happens when we bring our own subjectivity to the past? Can we ever escape the desire to see the world not as it is but as we've learned to narrate it, whether we encounter that world in a text we find in the archives or in 17th century Japan as a result of time-travel? My own answer is no, not entirely -- but then, I've never found myself, as Hiro does, writing a history that would be passed down not to others but to Me.

I suppose that History has always written our stories -- both in the sense that our stories are structured by an inherited tradition and by single humans' experiences of those times. The question is whether we can work to find the human agency that wrote that history, and the tensions that suggest there might have been a way of narrating it Otherwise.

cross posted at Old English in New York

Friday, October 12, 2007

Best opening lines to a film review

From today's NYT, Manohla Dargas writes:
A kitsch extravaganza aquiver with trembling bosoms, booming guns and wild energy, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” tells, if more often shouts, the story of the bastard monarch who ruled England with an iron grip and two tightly closed legs.
I now coin a term for putting historically dubious creations of art in their place: "scathed." Elizabeth: The Golden Age, you have been scathed (or scath'd).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Will Simon Armitage do for SGGK what Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf?

A great many people seem to think so.

I've just ordered this promising new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for my new course "Myths of Britain" in the spring (an introduction to the major, the course looks at the literature of early England within a paninsular, transnational frame). More here when the volume arrives.

Honestly, isn't it about time a leather-jacket clad poet got his hands on the thing?

(Thanks, Jonathan Hsy, for calling my attention to its publication).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At Avebury

Here is the draft opening to my new project on "The Weight of the Past." I'm attempting to frame the problem with an initially negative solution, but (you know me well, my readers) will eventually swing around to something more affirmative.

This project, I should add, is the biggest loser in the theft of my laptop: my research notebook, with the detailed scribblings, observations, outline, and bibliographic notes, vanished with that computer. I had not backed it up since August 17. But (speaking of swinging around to a more affirmative mode), the loss of the project's past has given me the chance to clear out some of the weight of that history, and to think certain components of my argument anew. That's strangely liberating, even if a buttload of work.


We stand beneath the megalith. Brisk winds roam the grass. The sheep are complaining. “Can you feel anything?” I ask. His palm presses against the rock as eagerly as mine. “Yes,” he whispers, fingers searching clefts and lichen. “I think I do.” He places his head against the stone and closes his eyes, as if through an intimate touch he might discern hoary secrets. He seems as certain and as joyful as when, many years ago, he used to press his head to my chest to apprehend the life of an invisible heart. In a solemn voice, as if he has absorbed from deep in the rock its enduring history, he announces “It knows it killed someone.”

I realize immediately that my son must have pilfered my copy Aubrey Burl’s Prehistoric Avebury: Second Edition. He must have been reading the volume late into the night of our London flat. “Me, too,” I say. “I definitely feel something.”

I am lying. Like my son I want to feel power in the towering stone. Not the energy of astral planes or the pull of a vortex or proximity to pagan divinity. Not whatever it is New Age druids come to Avebury seeking. Yet as in their dreams, my desire is that the stone not be inert. My son is right: this megalith did, after all, take someone’s life. After standing for millennia, the 13-ton rock crushed a man and preserved him for six centuries beneath its bulk. The weight of the past, indeed. Alexander Keiller discovered the body in 1938 when he disinterred and re-erected the stone. Archeologists hypothesize that the skeletal remains were in life an itinerant barber-surgeon. His leather purse contained some scissors, a lancet, and some coins from the early fourteenth century. He was likely witnessing or even assisting in the contemporary effort to obliterate Avebury, “mightiest in size and grandeur of all megalithic rings” until a piecemeal destruction commenced in the Middle Ages. Pits were dug beneath the standing stones so that they toppled and were buried, acts of “pious vandalism” directed at what was probably understood to be an unchristian structure. Perhaps the effort was abandoned when the accidental entombment of the barber convinced its witnesses that these stones could still exert some force. Since its re-erection eight decades ago, the megalith has been known as Barber Rock, its new name bearing witness to the life it took.

As destructive as the fourteenth-century project of toppling Avebury may have been, this attempted annihilation of an architecture four thousand years old paradoxically assisted in preserving its components. Those rocks buried by medieval vandals where they fell were shielded from fragmentation and reuse in later periods. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were especially brutal to the Avebury stone circle. The utter destruction of numerous megaliths was accomplished through the use of fire, cold water, and sledgehammers. We will never know how many of the rocks became, once smashed to pieces, the foundations of local farmhouses and the stuff of quotidian roadways.

My son felt power abiding in a megalith that, having celebrated thousands of birthdays as part of a Neolithic architecture, fell upon and crushed a medieval man. The stone had patiently awaited resurrection for five hundred years so that it could again tower over a verdant field, could again render the humans standing alongside it small and ephemeral. With my son I wanted to believe that histories long separated from us can endure in objects like Barber Rock – and Avebury, and Stonehenge, and the prehistoric past, and the Middle Ages. I wanted to believe that human meaning can survive across inhuman temporal gaps. Yet I knew that the body of the crushed barber-surgeon, of the man who had dared to undermine the stone and had paid for the act with his life, had been rediscovered recently in London. A new theory holds that the barber was dead before the stone toppled over him. So much for the agency of the rock, its dangerous and enduring force. Those are powers we humans yearn to observe because we suspect that they do not exist, that time brings history to an oblivion as mute as stone.

Intimations of mortality. Whatever its initial architects called it, in whatever language they spoke but could not bequeath to us, Barber Rock has perhaps always been inert. The dolmens and stone circles that tourists wander Brittany, Ireland and Britain to glimpse -- architectures we think endure from time out of memory -- are typically modern reconstructions using nearby materials, designed to look Neolithic. Avebury is no different, a product of a massive restoration in the 1930s as much as a time capsule mailed five millennia ago. My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires.

So much for the weight of the past. History, it seems, is literally immemorial, “out of memory,” impossible to hold for long.