Saturday, March 22, 2008

Albina Myth: Standard Reading

So in the comments to this post, Karl writes:
As for the Lynch: "not only as a British foundation myth but also as a cautionary tale about the dangers to society of ambitious-and foreign-women who usurp masculine privilege." That's a standard reading of the text (admittedly little read when Lynch did her article, and still not much read)

That standard reading would be, um, mine ... I admit to being the one who gave it to Lynch, albeit at that time it was part of my dissertation. I think it was also the first time I made it into someone's footnote for something I said.

Anyway, I thought just for fun I'd cut and paste the standard reading here. It's from the second chapter of my book Of Giants. Read Karl's post first ... then, (as Slavoj Zizek would say) Enjoy!


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The Albina myth conjoins the rapinous tradition of biblical giants with Geoffrey [of Monmouth]'s secular version and produces a smaller product through the combination, a history with familial interests behind its nationalistic gestures. The spirits who copulate with Albina and her sisters in [the Anglo-Norman account of the founding of Britain] Des grantz geanz are called incubi, malfez, and deables; their offspring are consequently horrifying to behold (a regarder hidous) and abnormally large. Incubi in medieval myth are, like giants, always male. They have no material body of their own, but are nonetheless able to implant an organism (organization of being) within the bodies of the women they violate, causing the birth of a monster. Sexual mother, rapinous incubus, and infant monster are the vertices of an unholy family triangle which obscenely contrasts with the model medieval family of Virgin Mother, sexless Holy Spirit, and sinless divine Son. The Holy Family remains an incorporeal ideal by wholly eliminating sexuality and the body from its narrative of origins, but this second familial triangle violently reinscribes flesh and sex into bodily generation.

The Albina myth translates into monstrous form two conceptualizations of the biological origin of human life as medical science understood it in the Middle Ages. For medieval theorists of the body who followed Aristotle, the mother contributes formless bodily matter (materia) to the child, while the man imposes with his seed (semen) a structure that organizes this inert substance into a sexed and gendered being. The Aristotelian model is obviously another version of Brutus' mythology of nation-building: the woman is the elemental matter from which offspring are produced, just as the land is the raw materia of nation. The influential treatises of the physician Galen, on the other hand, argued that both men and women contribute seed (and therefore structure) to their progeny. The Galenic conceptualization of reproduction corresponds to the rejected model of origin which Albina represents. She and her sisters contribute as much to their progeny as their sexual partners. The conjoining of incubus and errant woman results in a new body that mixes the nature of both, the repudiating monstrum. This monstrous family invokes the domestic triangle of father, mother, and child to illustrate what happens when a body strays from its properly subordinate place in the regulative trigonometry of the idealized medieval household. Albina oversteps her (cultural, biological) place as submissive wife, and disaster ensues. Brutus must intervene and overwrite Galenic equality with Aristotelian masculinism: feminine bodies become as passive in the generation of progeny as they must be in the articulation of familia.

Geoffrey's Historia brought a fragmented political field into widespread coherence through an ideologically cohesive master-signifier: Britain/England, the "Nation-Thing" as sublime object of ideological identification. Circulated almost two hundred years later, long after that cultural unity has been achieved, the Albina myth extends the same ideological intervention to a basic identity relationship by which the larger imagined community writes itself in parvo. Albina and her sisters refused their subject-positions in marriage and attempted to erect a structure for human relationships in which femininity and the maternal were not dominated by or absorbed into masculine mastery. The sisters strove in Greece to bring about a world in which their agency would be absolute, where "none of them would be willing to have a master, nor be placed under anyone's duress, but always be mistress of her husband and of whatever he owned [mestresce de sun seignur e quant q'il out]" (58-61). Albina would destroy a culture which depends for its continuance on the replicative reinscription of the family, the miniature version of the patriarchal state.

After retelling the Albina story, John Hardyng wrote that "women desyre of al thynges soveraynte, and to my concept, more in this land than any other, for they have it of the nature of the said sisters." He could easily be quoting Chaucer's antimatrimonial nightmare, the Wife of Bath. The tale which the Wife tells begins, significantly, with incubi and threats of rape. Its hero is a knight who, in punishment for having casually violated a maiden, is compelled to discover what thing women most desire, and determines that "wommen desiren to have sovereyntee" (III 1038). This prideful desire for mastery in marriage motivates the Wife of Bath herself. Her prologue to her tale chronicles long fights to gain absolute dominance over a succession of five husbands, whom she consecutively reduces to subordination. The Wife of Bath inhabits that same male fantasy space from which Albina derives, so that she can be invoked by Chaucer in the "Lenvoy a Bukton" as a monstrous warning of the woe that is in marriage. Both Albina and Alisoun of Bath teach husbands that governance in marriage is as authoritarian and severe as the autocratic governance of the state. Rather than argue that this aggressive dominance comes naturally to men, or that submissiveness is an affect of the feminine body, the Albina myth naturalizes the occurrence of both by showing how, through "historical necessity," such an ordering of gendered relations came to be established. The myth constructs aggressively constricted roles for husbands at the same time as it illustrates through negative exemplum the properly domestic boundaries of the ideal wife.

Nature, Culture, and Language
This not owning of one's words is there from the start, however, since speaking is always in some ways the speaking of a stranger through and as oneself, the melancholic reiteration of a language that one never chose.
-- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter 242

In translating into English Wace's French translation of Geoffrey's Latin Historia, Robert Mannyng of Brunne was forced to admit that he was uncertain about the existence of giants. As he describes the monsters who await the arrival of Brutus in England, Mannyng observes that: "Geant is more than man / so says the boke, for I ne kan" ("A giant is bigger than a man -- so says the book, but I don't know," The Chronicle 1751-52). They are "like men ... in flesch & bone," he asserts, even if "in my tyme, I saw neuer non" (1753-54). Mannyng's understated incredulity is endearing, but at the same time as he casts some doubt about the existence of the monsters, he is happy to pass along official information about them to his readers. Most of all, he states, giants are characterized by their similitude: they present an exact if inflated replica of a the masculine body (1755-56), a perfect simulacrum.

"Man" is used as if it were a universal category throughout Middle English writing, but in Mannyng's description of the giant it retains its gendered specificty. His "membris" and "lymes" mark the giant as man-like, but also as male -- as the description of Gogmagog and his monstrous crew which follows next in the Chronicle makes clear. The giant as the magnified, insistently physical masculine corpus is Geoffrey of Monmouth's contribution to medieval gigantology, and although Mannyng might undercut the possibility that giants existed, he does not doubt their sex. Whereas Galfridian tradition chronicles only male giants battling for supremacy against male foes, however, the Anglo-Norman Albina myth repeatedly inserts feminine and maternal bodies, even after Albina and her sisters have vanished into biological function. Invoking the giants' primal associations with sexual violation, the narrative details their race's continuance by linking its monstrous life to the transgression of what Claude Lévi-Strauss has called the first patriarchal law, the incest prohibition. The male first generation of giants begets children upon their own mothers. A cycle of historical repetition through incest is then set into motion, in which "filz et filles" (sons and daughters) engender more monsters "par grant outrage" -- sometimes on their mothers, sometimes on each other (434-36). The offspring of these unions likewise grow large, becoming a people "of immense body" (438-40). Until the arrival of Brutus, Albion exists as a hideously closed world of continuous sexual confusion which re-enacts, relentlessly, the failure of the first family triangle established in the narrative. Signification and sexuation are conjoined in their monstrous impropriety.

Maud Ellmann has observed that "Kinship laws, which govern the system of combinations in mating, correspond to linguistic laws governing the combinations of words in a sentence or letters in a word." The antifamilial, antimatrimonial system which the women established is doubly incestuous, somatically and linguistically. Its monstrousness inheres in its "bad grammar" that at first will not culturally differentiate wives from husbands, and then cannot separate mothers from children, brothers from sisters: "For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations." Albina does in fact establish that order of human relations which she sought to materialize through a usurped speech act, only to learn that she is excluded by the language she invokes, that its power will monstrously transform her feminine body as it flings her back to the passive materiality from which she fled. Albion under Albina devolves into a realm of pure, undifferentiated nature. It awaits the imprint of a new, masculine language to materialize an order, to precipitate culture through some foundational prohibition, through some heroic fiat.

The organization of bodies into culture through the instigation of a kinship system is very like the ordering of the phenomenological world into reality which language accomplishes, or of the past into history which narrativization executes. All three of these performances are strongly gendered acts. Yet they do not receive their gendering prior to their effects upon reality; rather, "gender" is produced through the very fantasies in which these systems ground themselves, and through the continued repetition of their "foundational" gestures. In order to assert male dominance within these structures, originary myths are invented which authorize an oppressive present through anchorage in a similar past. Lévi-Strauss bequeathed such a myth to anthropology when he wrote the Elementary Structures of Kinship, a work which equates "raw" nature with feminine bodies, and the legitimizing power of culture with the founding fathers who invent the incest prohibition (i.e., Law itself) and therefore also invent gender. According to Lévi-Strauss, "man's sexual life" (the gender of the noun is important) is originally wild, "natural" (12). The incest prohibition, synonymous with the institution of a law which generates family relations, organizes this formless sexuality into a culturally legible norm; it allows the exchange of women between men, which in turn generates endogamy and exogamy, which in turn transform nature into culture (because an "absence of rules seems to provide the surest criterion for distinguishing a natural from a cultural process," 8). Culture here is the same as kinship systems; culture arrives at the same time as "relationless" bodies are hierarchized into families.

Lévi-Strauss writes in an Aristotelian vein. Men invent the laws regulating sexuality which distinguish the human from the animal; women are passively invested with the meaning by these laws as their bodies trace paths of affiliation between the men who exchange them. Lacan reiterated this originary myth when he used Lévi-Strauss as his own foundation for a semiotics-inflected psychoanalysis: "The primordial Law is therefore that which in regulating marriage ties superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of nature abandoned to the law of mating ... This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language" ("Function and field of speech and language," Écrits 66). The Albina myth is an early version of the same kind of originary narrative. It allows a masculinist logic to equate nature with femininity (a "mystery," because it is prelinguistic, and therefore also excessively corporeal), and culture and language with men (fully knowable, because they invent speech, and speech orders the world). The Albina myth, Lévi-Strauss' incest fantasy, Lacan's dream of a wholly phallogocentric language are all moments in a long history by which the masculine gender is erected as a universal, and women are allied with the abjected, the marginal, the monstrous. If the world and the linguistic structures used to understand it inevitably and eternally took their origins in this way, men and women alike would be right to heed Luce Irigaray, and despair of ever using language to construct a nonexclusive reality for all bodies, regardless of anatomy. Fortunately, the Albina myth suggests a different fate for masculinist originary fantasies: a change in the structure of linguistic and cultural signification via some historical rupture which reconfigures the "master-signifiers," resigning old myths to the quiet loneliness of the archive, where they can teach but cease to harm. No system of human meaning is ever complete, invulnerable, and impervious to history.

Like many medieval writers, Alain de Lille imagined in his "handbook" (enchiridion) on the laws of nature that the power of language over material reality, including sexuality, is absolute. A telling scene of De planctu naturae (The Complaint of Nature, c.1165) describes Genius at his writing table:
In his right hand he held a pen, close kin of the fragile papyrus, which never rested in its task of inscription. In his left hand he held the pelt of a dead animal, shorn clear of its fur of hair by the razor's bite. On this, with the help of his obedient pen, he endowed, with the life of their species, images of things that kept changing from the shadowy outline of a picture to the realism of their actual being. As these were laid to rest in the annihilation of death, he called others to life in a new birth and beginning.

The (masculine) stylus, perfect vehicle of an unfailing language, inscribes the world upon the stilled surface of the vellum -- once a living body, now passive materia. Likewise, the Anglo-Norman version of the Albina myth imagines an unchanging masculine order of pure language through which human and historical identity are solidified. Divorced from its own materiality, the male body becomes as impossibly airy, disembodied, and indestructible as a language that exists outside of time and change; the male body becomes synonymous with the frozen verba et grammatica that inscribe meaning upon the body of the world, as well as upon bodies in the world. Albina's naming of the land linguistically parallels Brutus' expressed desire for geographical immortality, his fathering of a country and a people through a name:
Albine est mon propre noun,
Dunt serra nomé Albion;
Par unt de nous en ceo pais
Rembrance serra tutdis. (ll.347-50)
Because my name is Albina, this land shall be called Albion; by this our eternal memory shall live in this country.

Compare the same scene written in the masculine gender in the Historia:
Denique Brutus de nomine suo insulam Britoniam appellat sociosque suos Britones. Uolebat enim ex diruatione nominis memoriam habere perpetuam. (13-14)

Brutus called the land Britain after himself. His intention was that his memory be made eternal through the derivation of the name.

Albina invokes the reifying power of language, as if she were a hypermasculine Trojan hero, not a monstrously transgressive Greek woman. She "repeats" in the past the same linguistic ritual which will render Brutus the generative parent of Britain. Fathering a nation (and its substructure and support, the family) is metaphorically possible without recourse to female agency; indeed, both rely upon female passivity, on the provision of a "natural state" or formless materiality on which to impose structuration. Albina's linguistic ordering of reality yields only monstrous forms: bodies which are at once male and female and incestuous, bodies that do not know their proper cultural place because they pre-exist the masculine "invention" of place. Brutus is able to repeat the same words and, by reference to a linguistic authority his by dint of the subject-position from which he articulates his words, he produces a nationalistic matrix for the proper gendering of identities, a model for male dominance.
In Brutonian history, both the monsters and the feminine body vanish at this moment of origin, evacuated of meaning "in their own right" and installed into the progress narrative of history. Like those monumental statues in Guildhall, they commemorate a monstrous past which exists only to envalue an architecture of power in the present. This haunting presence-in-death is foregrounded by giving the giants an archeological reality. The monsters are visible now not only as huge petrified bones qe hom puet trover / En mult des leus de la terre ("which a man can find in many places across the land," 443-56), but as earthworks and ruins. The narrative stresses that these remnants are, like Gogmagog's Leap in Geoffrey's Historia, still a part of the landscape of England. Past and present intersect and filiate. Brutus slaughters the giants upon his arrival in Britain, but he spares Gogmagog. This giant tells him the very tale which Des grantz geanz itself relates: the creation and lineage of the giants, how they came into the land, and why Britain should once have been called Albion. Brutus responds by ordering the story memorialized "so that others afterwards might know the marvel of this story," 543-4. Appropriately enough, historical narrativization is performed through the mouth of a monster.

Medieval England is far from alone in imagining that its land was once ruled by a primordial matriarchy. The Albina myth partakes of a long tradition of fantasies of female sovereignty. One manuscript of Guiron le Courtois, a French grail quest romance which opens with a survey of English history, compares the Greek sisters directly to the archetypal gynecocracy of the West, the Amazons. Since the publication of Jacob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht in 1861, many scholars have seen in the pervasive literary imaginings of primal matriarchies like the Amazons an encoding of historical fact. Other critics have pointed out that these myths of female rule function instead to justify the subjugation of women "by providing a purportedly historical account of how this reality came about." Such times and places in the Western imagination are primarily the creations of men, who imagine these inversions in order to validate their own dominant position. According to the classical myth, Theseus invades the Amazonian mutterland, and the rebuked matriarchs are transformed into properly subordinated wives. Similarly, Brutus and his men purge the land of its subhuman citizens in order to rewrite the wrongdoing of the Greek sisters. Along the way, they also establish a double sovereyntee: for the management of the nation, and for the management of the family. In both, the feminine body is conjoined with the monster, to vanish in a foundational act.

The story of Albina's colonization of England was wildly popular. Manuscript evidence suggests that the narrative was originally composed in Anglo-Norman, then quickly translated into English and then Latin. As Carley and Crick point out, vernacular texts were rarely rendered into Latin in the Middle Ages, so that "when it did occur, it represented an elevation of the text, its enshrinement in linguistic authority." This translation into the language of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae also marks an elevation into history: from the early fourteenth century to the last surviving days of the giants in Guildhall, the maternal body and the monstrous with which it is intimately connected receive a foundational, structural positioning within the identity of the English historia. Albina and Gogmagog become mother and son.

7 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

And I would like to add that I gave credit already to Jeffrey for this reading when I gave my talk at the Newberry Library last winter on the giant women of the Anglo-Latin "Wonders" text and the myth of the Danaides [which we should remember is always connected, on some level, to the Albina/Albion myths], and then again when I shared this talk here on In The Middle, and again I cited this chapter oh so copiously in the essay I wrote for JJC's "Infinite Realms" collection. Triple-dunk!

Interestingly, in her analysis [in her book "Heterosyncracies"] of Amazons in medieval literature, such as "Mandeville's Travels" [and which Amazons are, of course, rooted in classical literature: Alexander legends, the Aeneid, etc.], Karma Lochrie does not discuss the medieval English Albina tradition, although she does discuss Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and "Man of Law's Tale" [in which she traces the "disappearance of female masculinity"--and that is maybe something Karl might want to read in relation to his thought's on the "Wife of Bath's Tale"]. I'm somewhat surprised, though, given Lochrie's focus on her book, that the second chapter of JJC's "Of Giants" doesn't show up at all.

Also, in a book that srj recommended to me not too long ago, "Freedom of Movement in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 2003 Harlaxton Medieval Symposium" [ed. Peregrine Horden] Christopher Baswell has a chapter, "Albyne Sails for Albion: Gender, Motion, and Foundation in the English Imperial Imagination," which if I recall correctly does not cite the chapter JJC shares here [but I have to double-check that as the book is in my school office].

Karl Steel said...

That standard reading would be, um, mine

Oops, sorry! I didn't say it was a bad reading (thank goodness!). And lord knows my reading of DGG (Des granz geanz), which stresses similarity rather than difference, certainly has been propelled by JJC's material on extimite from Giants....

I was thinking of Lesley Johnson, ‘Return to Albion', Arthurian Literature 13 (1995), 19-40, which is, along with JJC's Giants book (which, back in the day, I also read for my seminar paper on Albina) is listed here. As far as my knowledge c. 2002 goes, the Johnson's the best stand-alone article on Albina, although I haven't yet seen the Baswell (but I expect it's probably excellent).

Back to boxes!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks, Eileen and Karl. It wasn't that I was looking to be cited (although it's always nice to have work noticed); I was just remarking -- to myself, mostly -- that it feels weird to have become an old reading.

That's inevitable of course, and in a way it is really pleasing to be surpassed: what more can a scholar wish for than to have worked at a topic in its youth (I was writing the dissertation out of which Of Giants sprang c.1991-92), and to see that work change as others move it towards its adolescence.

Though I also take Eileen's point: the Albina story is so great, and so popular, it is truly strange not to have more attention paid to it.

Stephanie Trigg said...

More recently, Anke Bernau discusses the myths of Albina and Boudica and their C16 reception in "Myths of origin and the struggle over nationhood" in Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England , ed David Matthews and Gordon McMullan (Cambridge). Here's a quote:

If, as Cohen argues, the figure of the monster in medieval thought, 'living at the margins of the world', has the power to challenge 'traditional methods of organizing knowledge and human experience', then it is perhaps not Albina and her sisters or Boudica and her Britons who represent that 'monstrous error'. Perhaps it is the question of English origins itself.

She concludes that 'exploring national origin through female figures arguably allowed historiographers to articulate - however inadvertently - the ambiguities and fearful uncertainties of writing such histories'; that myths of English origin are haunted by division and the discovery of disunity.

Karl Steel said...

My Med Academy Paper reading, which I do want to flesh out into something more substantial someday, argues for something more specific than "English origins," although Bernau's approach sounds sympathetic to mine. I had linked the development of the Albina myth to the tensions between exogamy (predatory kinship, if using this phrase in the 1310s or so isn't anachronistic) and the endogamous imperative to keep land in the family, an imperative whose most perfect expression is incest. If I can hack it, I'd like to link this, somehow, to the spread of primogeniture among the English nobility of the early 14th c....

Ruth Evans said...

A very late comment (2 actually):
Karl, have you published anything on the Albina legend?
I have also published this: Evans, Ruth. “The Devil in Disguise: Perverse Female Origins of the Nation.” Consuming Narratives: Gender and Monstrous Appetites in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ed. Teresa Walters and Elizabeth Herbert McAvoy. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2002. 180-95.

Karl Steel said...

Ruth, nope, not a word, unless you count facebook. I have some ideas for a paragraph or two for book #2, and enough stuff to say about genealogy and parthenogenesis for an article if I could ever find the time to write it. recent fb comment, which sort of echoes my DGG post on ITM was:
""‎(cool! I've thought for a long time that the Des Grantz Geanz story -- i.e., the Albina legend -- comes about in part because of the increasing tendency towards primogeniture in England further down the aristocratic scale. It's a narrative, in part, about the oldest sibling laying claim to an entire land, and then being supplanted by another dominant sibling (i.e., Brutus), and its incest/parthenogenesis model of genealogy is the perfect primogeniturist fantasy of the oldest sibling just repeating him/herself identically in perpetuity. that's what I said at Medieval Academy in Seattle in, like, 2004?)""
thanks for the heads-up on your article, which I'll certainly dig into before I teach the tale again