Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mothers (and Giants) to Think Back Through

Maybe you know what to do with the Arthurian opening of the Wife of Bath's tale. I don't, not quite, but then again, I've only just started my path towards planting my flag on some portion of Chauceriana. I found one answer in Patricia Clare Ingham's "Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath's Tale," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.1 (2002) 34-46, but I'm sorry to say I found it more interesting than convincing. I'm sure the fault is my own. Ingham argues on behalf of the pastoral against its critics, who condemn it for its occlusions of material realities. In her hands, the pastoral and other utopian fantasies of the time before the proliferation of "halles, chambres, kichenes, boures / citees, burghes, castels, hye toures / Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes" (3.869-71) become a site of fantasy for the conquered and therefore a way to read past the conquering, dominant culture to otherwise lost voices. However, although a British Arthur is always a Welsh hero, although there's Celtic myth and memory in the loathly lady, the sovereignty hag, or whatever you want to call her, and although "Britons" (3.858) could be Welsh, I just can't hear the Welsh in the Wife's Tale. Maybe I don't have my ear pressed hard enough to the ground.

What I do sense are incubi, now exorcised by the friars, and the elf-queen, all of whom, inspired by Ingham, I read as a site of fantasy. As much as we love Gowther's father, his fourteenth-century fame barely rates in comparison to the cultural dominance of the incubi of the Albina legend. In a story that was translated from Insular French into Middle English, Latin, and Welsh--and what follows is a summary of one version--a Greek princess and her twenty-nine sisters plot to murder kings whom their father, a more powerful king, wants them to marry. Betrayed by the youngest sister, the remaining sisters are sent into exile on a rudderless boat, which drifts to an island christened Albion, after the oldest sister, Albina. After living for a time on a vegetarian diet, the sisters rejuvenate themselves with wild game and grow lustful. Their lust attracts incubi, by whom the sisters engender gigantic children. The children then breed with their mothers, and everyone continues interbreeding. Thus the island fills up with giants, who fight with each other so viciously that by the time Brutus arrives, 270 years later, only 24 giants remain, including a giant named Gogmagog who tells Brutus their history.

For a tale dominated by Guinevere, the voices of wives, widows, and maidens, and by an magical crone, I want Albina and her sisters to be its first gynocentric model of rule. It's a stretch, but I also want Albina and her sisters to be the "ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo" (3.992) that the rapist sees fleetingly "under a forest syde." I want Albina and her children to be an alternate genealogy for the Wife, one that's traced backed to a founding mother. After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage (think here of the women in the prologue, so many of whom--okay, two--are named Alys); nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.

In essence, I want to trapdoor Ingham; but mainly I want to watch the Wife trapdoor everyone else. I want to read the first line of the tale, "In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour" (3.858) not as "In the old days, the time of King Arthur" but as "In the days Arthur would have considered old," the time when in fact "this land fulfild of fairye" (3.859). After all, so far as I know (folklorists? Arthurian specialists?), in Arthur's time the land was mainly full of knights, who sometimes encountered a scattered a fairy or two like Gromer Somer Joure or a faux fairy like Bertilak; for throngs of fairies, we need to go back to Albina's day. Following Ingham, we might be able to recover Welsh resistance in this monstrous origin; but I think we can follow this back still further, to the Wife's own desires. What that would get us I don't know yet (please don't say the presymbolic Maternal!).

Hell, I don't know if I'm just recapitulating something that's been said 100 times already.

But, correcting for the nobility, I can't help but hear the Wife in this:
My fair sustres, ful weel ȝe knowiþ þat þe kyng oure fadir, vs hath reprouyd, schamed & dispised, for encheson to make vs obedient vn-to oure housbandes; but certes þat schal y neuere, whiles þat I lyve, seth þat I am come of a more hyere kynges blod þan my housband is.
And I'm not even sure I have to correct for the high kindred of Albina, since, after all, the Wife is so puffed up that "in all the parisshe wife ne was ther noon / that to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; / and if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she / that she was out of alle charitee" (1.449-52). And, if I can sense Albina in the tale's own prologue, maybe I can account for an episode that--maybe--doesn't get the respect it deserves. What the next step would be, I don't know yet.
(conversations continue below, and much excellence to read that merits more conversation: the Carnivalesque; Publishing and Our Discontents; the Frenchness of English Jews; Mary Kate on monsters and resistances to knowledge; and, of course, Eileen's mother of a post and its gigantic thread, "On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities": all great stuff)

(image scanned from the delightful English Popular Art of Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx.


Dr. Virago said...

What the story of Albina also makes me think of is Custance in the Man of Law's tale. There's the rudderless ship, obviously, but also the charge by Donegild, however false (or not?), that Custance is an "elf" who has given birth to a monster. The Man of Law tries very hard to make Custance's story into a quasi saint's life, but can't entirely bury her elvish otherness. And though she is constant and passive in her suffering at times, she can also be feistily and strangely head-strong (or just strong) -- as in her conversion of Hermingild (and interesting community of two women, found threatening and thus violently dissolved by the unnamed knight who frames C for murder), or in her miraculous throwing of the rapist overboard from her rudderless ship. I know, it's supposedly the BVM who did that, but then the MoL says "How may this wayke womman han this strengthe..." and compares her to David slaying Goliath -- there's your giant-slaying for you.

I know this doesn't really help you with the WBT, but I'm in the midst of teaching MLT, so my head is elsewhere!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Fascinating, Karl.

I must admit the idea of a connection between Chaucer and the Albina myth has suggested itself to me in the past -- though, just as Dr V suggested, in relation to the MLT more than WoB (and also to a degree the Knight's T, with its conquered Amazons, and the Squire's T, with its actual inhabited Femenye that Canacee brings about). I've even brought the materials into my undergrad classroom in translation, but I have found it hard to move beyond being suggestive in the connection: there just isn't anything that would definitively link Chaucer to Albina.

Still, I've argued many times that Chaucer has three strategies for all things British (and thereby Welsh):
(1) relegation to silence
(2) displacement to Brittany
(3) museumfication [Britain as a historical entity rather than a contemporary one].

I'll give this post more thought though. It's very intriguing.

Karl Steel said...

MLT does seem like a better fit, but I still think: a) British historical setting; b) Incubi; c) gynecocracy, sort of,; d) lust, e) vanishing women; f) dominant wives; g)and, why not, a discovery of women occupying the heart of every masculine desire (think of the old wife saying to the rapist, "I know what you want"), and think: Albina and the sisters.

Just checked my Riverside textual notes and was very disappointed to see that the there's no indication that any scribes changed the 24 dancing women to 29. Anyone have ManRick at hand?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Oh and here is one more thing, regarding incubi: they are quite Arthurian, too. Don't forget that Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin is the son of an incubus, and he provides a an extended gloss on them as well.

As to fairies and Arthur ... that's not just Chaucerian, either. In Marie de France's Lanval, the mysterious lady is fairy-like, and takes Lanval to the Isle of Avalon at the end. The Middle English version by Thomas Chestre is more explicit: Sir Launfal's love is here named Dame Tryamour (that's the medieval version of a James Bond woman), and she is the daughter of Oberon, "Kyng of Fayrye." Launfal is at the end "take ynto Fayrye." The dominant wife in both would be lusty Guenevere. (I love the shocked -- shocked! -- line in Chestre "sche hadde lemmannys under her lord").

All that's missing is the negative gynecocracy (I supposed you have a positive one in Marie, since Avalon is ruled by the Lady and not some father figure).

That's not to argue you out of your argument at all, Karl, because as I said I think it's a compelling one ... but it still seems to me compelling in its suggestiveness rather than its secure connection. Then again, think of the amazing article that Kathy Lynch wrote connecting the Squire's Tale to the Thousand and One Nights, using mainly the power of suggestion ("East Meets West in Chaucer's Squire's and Franklin's Tales" Speculum 70 1995 530-551). Lynch, by the way, connects the Franklin's Tale to the Albina myth:

Indeed, Dorigen's role recollects a foundation myth that is sharply opposed
to the one Geoffrey provides of Brutus civilizing Britain. In a story that was
very popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Anglo-Norman and English romancers describe the background to Geoffrey's account of Brutus's
arrival, and in particular tell of Albin[a], the Greek or Syrian princess who, as
in the story of Danaus's daughters, joins with her sisters in plotting against their
husbands' mastery by killing them in their sleep.52
The Greek Albina's plans are
thwarted by her youngest sister's mildness toward her own husband and betrayal
of the insurrection to their father. (In the versions where Albina is Syrian, her
murderous designs are successful.) Discovery leads to the sisters' exile and their
abortive attempt to found the matronyrnic nation of Albion. Despite their grand
schemes, however, the sisters find that they are unable to get along without
men, and they surrender themselves to libidinous appetites and the embraces
of the devil, who, in various forms, impregnates them with the giants whose
progeny Brutus will come to slay and colonize. The addition of the story of
Albina thus recasts the matter of Geoffrey's Historia 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. A society, like a marriage, the story seems to say, must be founded upon the authority of the
male, upon the patriarchal law that brings order to the chaos of the land once
the "regne of Femenye" (1.866), like enemies from the outside, is cleared away.
In reality, however, Dorigen is far from realizing the full threat of feminine
autonomy. Like Albina and her sisters, Dorigen's elevated social standing may
give her the upper hand over Arverag~s,~~
and he may swear to her at the
beginning of their marriage that he "[nle sholde upon hym take no maistrie /
Agayn hir wyl" (lines 747-48). But the most that can be said is that she mo-
mentarily flirts with freedom from masculine subjection just as she flirts with
the squire Aurelius.

(apologies for the off formatting, a hazard of cut and paste).

Karl Steel said...

Totally suggestive; you'll get no counterargument from me on that point.

And thanks for the reminders on the Incubi in Geoffrey HRB.

As for the fairies in Lanval: I'm of a mind that they support my point--after all, there's a way in which they're outside of Arthurian time, and hence 'before' it, and Arthur is, after all, a failure, at least in that lai.

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), but my argument in my 2003 Med Academy Conference paper was for the Albina story as a return of the repressed: I stressed the uncanny similarities instead of the differences, and so hollowed out the patriarchy from within. Something like that. I'd say more, but I'm moving tomorrow, final packing right now, so no ITMing for me for a few days.

Karl Steel said...

I'm of a mind that they support my point

Uh, duh, that's pretty much what you said. NOW I'm really gone, even if I got this wrong too.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Good luck with the moving Karl, and good luck with this project. You'll pardon the pun, but you are on to something BIG with this, and I can see it moving beyond Chaucer.

Though I do think that Lanval and Launfal are fully within the Arthurian imaginary!

Karl Steel said...

Ah-ha! Modem and router and laptop are always the last thing to be packed. Before they disappear: if I'm onto anything, it's because I've been inspired by Chris Baswell and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's Albina project...which I think I am (might have been once?) involved in somehow...I must check on that.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff and everyone,

So here's where I reveal myself as a regular lurker to "In the Middle"! And thanks for the reference to my Wife of Bath article--and, truth be told, I'd always rather be interesting than right, although I do have ambitions that venture toward the compelling.

But I just logged on, Jeff, to say that I take your account a la Albion as a friendly rejoinder--and am not at all adverse to tumbling through that trap door you set. My one objection: I wouldn't say I'm actually critiquing the 'pastoral'--and I have a passionate fondness for Raymond Williams County and the City--so much as trying to "trapdoor" it!


Patty Ingham

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Hi Patty, it's so good to "see" you here.

I don't want to take credit for Karl's excellent post: he's the one invoking your essay, not me ... though I do have an essay in process that takes your essay as its point of departure!

Anonymous said...

Whoops! Sorry, Karl. And thanks to you for your interesting reading of the tradition. [Thanks, Jeff, for the correction.]

Note to self: spend a little more time on those lurking skills! Perhaps it's even time for me to come up with a blogger identity.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the comment, PCI. On being more right than interesting, first, I should repeat that I'm sure the is more with me than with your argument. A 'help my unbelief' situation, likely. Right after all shuts doors...even trapdoors! And interesting opens them, keeps things moving, and, well, interesting. So thanks again for your article, without which I'd be without any of the my thoughts on the links, however tentative, between Albina and the Wife.

Second, I hope I didn't come across as saying that you're critiquing the pastoral. Far from it! So far as I get it, yours is of course a post-disenchanted (to use a Dinshavian locution much-loved around these parts) appropriation (? discovery? rediscovery?) of the pastoral. Without it, there'd be nothing of the Welsh in the Wife's Tale, yes?

And, as for my trapdoor, it'd be foolish of me to argue that the Albina story is wholly outside, wholly before, the Arthurian. That's what I should remember...

Faint Scrawl said...

I'm preparing a class on the Wife's Tale and was wondering what to say about the intro. A google search led me to this recent post. Very interesting. Somehow it nudged my thinking along to recognize that ...
Elf-Queens's world--matriarchalish, women impregnated by incubi (without bodies).

Christian world: Limiters only (?!) dishonour, but don't impregnate. (If I understand the line.)

In the tale what does the rapist do? Takes the woman's virginity, but no mention of impregnating.

Reminds me of a student who asked yesterday, Where are all the Wife of Bath's kids?

Interesting blog. I already wasted an hour here. :)


P. Ingham said...

Well, now you've gone and made me get a blogger account!

I'll confess, Karl, to being all about reclaiming enchantment amidst disenchantment and the WofB is of course the patron saint of such an endeavor. [My current book project has, as one of IT'S ambitions a hope to offer a "new history of enchantment."] And it's really in this regard (or perhaps, better, in this spirit) that I deploy the pastoral in that little essay. [At one point I was planning a book on the utopian impulse of romance, but that project has transmogrified into a related project on the "medieval new," that is, what it means that medieval culture's account of newness, newfangeledness, novelty and 'novelries' is so interestingly ambivalent.]

But back to the Wife's Tale. I wasn't really trying to suggest that the Welsh Britons were some kind of source for Chaucer, but that the Britons are associated here with loves [as Jeff put it in one of these replies] that are somewhat mummified. I was interested in the way in which those "old dayes" nonetheless carried a good deal of enchanting power, power that a reader (comme moi) could appropriate for semi-utopian projects.

I think my slight resistance to the Albion direction with the WofB has to do with what the longstanding links between the loathly lady tradition and Irish female sovereignty--and in the longer version of that article (some of which was left on the cutting room floor), I do more with what seems to me similarity between the effacement of the Welsh as colonized subject (taken seriously rather than critiqued for their 'complicity' with English colonization--when I was first working on this material, the conventional wisdom about Welsh as colonized was that they weren't really a "unified" group, but rather folk with particular loyalty to their locality)and the effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the 'loathly lady' as a "celtic" motif.

I find the Albion material fascinating, but more far removed from traditions of sovereignty, although now that you mention it, I can't quite recall why I think that! But I also feel at this point that I should fess up and say that Stephen Knight really found this reading uncompelling--and it was his resistance that (long story) inspired my use of Raymond Williams. So I'm very grateful!

Heh, this blogging stuff is pretty fun.

; ) [Clearly emoticons are beyond my current skill-level.]

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Patty, thanks for joining the conversation. There was a line that really struck me in what you wrote:

effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the 'loathly lady' as a "celtic" motif

I don't know much of the scholarly history of treating the loathly lady ... mainly just Sigmund Eisner's book. He was a disciple of Roger Sherman Loomis and wrote in the same pan-Celtic vein. I'm wondering of you see a larger effacement of Wales within this scholarly tradition (ie did Loomis speak of vanished Celtic gods at the expense of vanishing the living Welsh?) or is the disappearing act limited to the loathly lady critics?

Karl Steel said...

"Faint Scrawl," Tom:

Limiters = Friars. She's digging at Hubert with that line, but also echoing a standard anti-fraternal critique of the friars as a horde (see the excellent Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton UP, 1986, but also see Deleuze and Guattari on the horror of the Horde in Thousand Plateaus). Might even push at friars in their missionary aspect here, which is, of course, a kind of precolonial aspect (the avant garde). If my hunches hold, this is how they're used in Southern France against the 'Cathars,' how they're used, vainly, in the Fraternal travels to the East. I want to imagine a real difference in terms of models of taking land between the friars (the new model) and the (12th-century) monks (the 'old' model), but I don't know where to take this...

But, Tom, you might also wonder: what about Arthur's kids? And where are children, more generally, in the Cant Tales? What happens to them? Paging Dan Kline...they're murdered, sacrificed, raped, and, yes, a few turn out well, but overall, I think of the CT's children as nodes of pathos.


I remember reading only two pieces on the loathly lady. Susan Carter, "Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What lies Behind Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale," The Chaucer Review 37.4 (2003): 329-45....and if my memory of my readings in Loomis holds, this does seem a bit...Loomis-y. E.g., Carter discovers the Triple Moon goddess in the wyf, maide, and widow at the court when the rapist returns. Other parts of the article are much, much better than this. Also Manuel Aguirre, "The Riddle of Sovereignty," The Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 273-282. According to my notes, nothing about Wales or the Britons in either one.

PCI, who's been forced to blog!, given your current projects, you've no doubt read/encountered Lynn Arner, "The Ends of Enchantment: Colonialism and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48.2 (2006) 79-101? Again, if my notes haven't betrayed me, Arner thinks you over-emphasize hybridity in Anglo-Welsh relations and lose the coercive aspect of hybridization...but this isn't how I remember, for example, Sovereign Fantasies (which I used for an inhuman Avowyng reading) (and I think Arner mis-steps by arguing for the barbarity of Bertilak's castle, when it would have been much easier, and possibly more interesting, to work with it as a utopian fantasy at the heart of the colonial wilderness, as if travelers to Shangri-La had discovered, not some Orientalized dreamworld, but instead a cleaned-up version of London).


Not that you need my approval, but I love the new project. I can't think offhand of any treatments of the important Newfangledness topos (except perhaps as a negative image of Dean's World Grown Old), and certainly nothing, then, that treats it as a site of ambivalence, of desire, or even, if you want to go there, the objet petit a. But given that you're pushing enchantment, probably don't want to do that!

do more with what seems to me similarity between the effacement of the Welsh as colonized subject (taken seriously rather than critiqued for their 'complicity' with English colonization--when I was first working on this material, the conventional wisdom about Welsh as colonized was that they weren't really a "unified" group, but rather folk with particular loyalty to their locality)and the effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the 'loathly lady' as a "celtic" motif.

This sounds fascinating, and I hope it finds a home someday. Perhaps my problem was looking to the article to fill in some gaps in my Wife of Bath knowledge (as I transform myself into a Chaucerian, at least for this semester). If I wanted, however, to turn on the Carter and Aguirre, above, and no doubt others (thinking of the notes in the TEAMS Gawain volume), to have the Wife of Bath be only one piece of a larger critique of the effacement of the Welsh, your approach sounds very, very useful.

I find the Albion material fascinating, but more far removed from traditions of sovereignty, although now that you mention it, I can't quite recall why I think that

Yeah, hmmm....I tend to think of the Albion material as a (and I'm sure I've said this somewhere above) place to think through, encounter, fall into, be swallowed up by (choose your metaphor) problems and fascinations of sovereignty. Sort of like the hag, but not as easily relegated to some chthonic/sylvan Other, and perhaps with a more complex relationship to eros.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Oh, and on loathly ladies ... there is now this.

Karl Steel said...

Huh, how about that. Looks interesting...

This sounds like the only place to get one's Welsh on...Lynn M. Wollstadt, "Repainting the Lion: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and a Traditional British Ballad."

I wonder who's reviewing it?

P. Ingham said...

Hey guys & gals,

So much to say, so little time. . .

Karl, you're exactly right about Arner's account of my reading. My feeling is (and I've said this to Lynn) that she misconstrues my point about hybridity. I'm certainly NOT arguing for a "friendly" association between English and Welsh. She really wants to keep the Marxist edge--and so I think, along the lines of Benita Parry, wants to resist all Bhabhean moves. But my point about SGGK is that the poem complicates any clear boundary between "English" and "Welsh" not in favor of friendship, but as a result of the considerable intimacy across triangulated difference: Welsh, English centrality, and English regional identities (Cheshire and Lancs) which as we know could make quite powerful claims on one's loyalties. I think Lynn assumes that "intimacy" = friendship, or affection, which of course psychoanalysis (to say nothing of accounts of domestic violence) have shown us to be untrue. My point is that the poem tries to resolve a genuine problem in the region from which it comes, namely the problem of whether the lines between "English" and "Welsh" can be easily , obviously drawn in all cases--this doesn't deny the considerable losses that the Welsh suffered under the "heel" of English colonization, but instead tries to cope with the fact that one's exotic others sometimes turn out to be neighbors.

I'll write another time about the "disappearing" Welsh in Eisner, but also the larger tradition on the loathly lady. Or, perhaps more accurately: the Welsh are often positioned as both (paradoxically) instrumental to the movement of the motif to ME, and somehow unconsequential, having produced few versions of it themselves. The big exception to this is Gleyns Goetnick's study of Peredur.

Gotta run! P.

Karl Steel said...

It's funny, though, because isn't the intimacy of the master-slave relationship a kind of hybridity too? I don't want, however, to pick on the Arner: I found it extremely useful for opening up poco issues to my undergrads.

My point is that the poem tries to resolve a genuine problem in the region from which it comes, namely the problem of whether the lines between "English" and "Welsh" can be easily , obviously drawn in all cases--this doesn't deny the considerable losses that the Welsh suffered under the "heel" of English colonization, but instead tries to cope with the fact that one's exotic others sometimes turn out to be neighbors.

Well put. On Difficult Middles does this sort of thing too, and hurrah for it and other such projects.

Just to talk about, well, me for a bit: This hits upon my (still far-distant) plans for Book #2, which is yet another Jewish/Xian relations in the MA thing, but one that looks at dietary laws and ceremonies, all designed to keep a proper distance, as effecting strange minglings: Xians keeping kosher to elude perceived sleights by Jews, Jews compelled to keep Easter solemnity (like any Xian), wetnurses as a site of particular anxiety, &c.

I'll write another time about the "disappearing" Welsh in Eisner, but also the larger tradition on the loathly lady.

Looking forward to it.