Friday, October 31, 2008

Bodies in Motion I

by J J Cohen
[EDIT 11 AM: I just noticed that the following constitutes ITM's 1,000th post. Happy One Thousand Posts, In the Middle! Your verbosity is an inspiration to us all.]

Below, the first part of my SEMA Mandeville piece. Your comments are welcome, since it is even as we speak being turned into an essay on travel literature for the new Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature.

Quotations are from The Book of John Mandeville, ed. Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007) -- a nice new edition of the text.

If you urge them with their gross and unworthy misconceptions of the nature and the will of God, or the monstrous follies of their fabulous theology, they will turn it off with a sly civility perhaps, or with a popular and careless proverb. You may be told that 'heaven is a wide place, and has a thousand gates'; and that their religion is one by which they hope to enter ... By such evasions they can dismiss the merits of the case from all consideration; and encourage men to think that the vilest superstition may serve to every salutary purpose, and be accepted in the sight of God as well as truth and righteousness. (Archdeacon Potts, 1818; quoted in Homi Bhabha, “Sly Civility,” The Location of Culture)

The Book of John Mandeville is one of the most treacherous texts of the Middle Ages … only, you wouldn’t know it, because the work seems so damn welcoming. Yet the work is as perilous as it is recalcitrant, two qualities intimately connected to and well masked by its “sly civility”: it seems affable enough, it lures you into an encounter … and then it leaves you intellectually beaten up, defeated, wondering how it did that to you. Yet more than its “native refusal to satisfy the colonizer's narrative demand” (as Homi Bhabha would say) the Book is so intractable because it does not in fact exist: there is no singular Book of John Mandeville, but a volatile multiplicity of texts masquerading as a unity. The nonexistence of the Book as object, as thing, has serious consequences for its analysis: we’ll always be chasing after what was supposed to remain on the shelf or in the grave where we placed it, something that keeps moving just beyond the skyline, where terra cognita curves to harbor incalculable islands.

In honor of my peripatetic subject, I will follow a meandering path. But I don’t want to lose you. Here, then, is the rough itinerary I’ll use to pursue this ever-in-transit Questing Beast named the Book of John Mandeville. I will attempt to map the following:
  1. How the text transforms itself from a typical account of Holy Land pilgrimage [an itinerarium based upon William of Boldensele’s Liber de quisbusdam ultramarines partibus] to a boundary-defying ethnography capable of almost circling the round earth
  2. How the Book populates its worlds with bodies in motion – so much so that things which ought to be utterly immobile (rocks, ruins, graves) are possessed of magnetism, motility, radiative effects that medievals called virtu.
  3. How the constant forward motion of the text never arrives at its destination (the globe is circumnavigable only in theory … the world, being Defective, open, can’t be contained in a circle’s enclaspment)
  4. How for all the Book’s dreams of a cosmos where bodies are in constant movement, impediments (“lapidary narratives”) nonetheless serve to interrupt the text’s restless itinerary, transfixing the Book to small identities like English … identities which, even if imaginary, are nonetheless a powerful counterweight to the embrace of otherness found elsewhere.
  5. Finally, how the Book is ultimately less of a text than an event: how it performs its own content, how the Book itself becomes a body in perpetual motion.
I will be quoting throughout this talk from the version of The Book of John Mandeville known as "Defective," an appellation this group earned because “missing” a section known as the Egypt Gap. I work with this version in part because it possesses the best claim to be “the English Mandeville,” and in part because its supposedly “unfortunate name” captures something profound about why the Book should possess such enduring vitality. Of course, there is no single Defective text, so I’ve settled upon the recently edited British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxvii, a “highly individualistic” treatment that, even if “somewhat compressed,” nonetheless contains most of the richest material found in other versions (Kohanski and Benson, 14-15). It also contains some fine illustrations, especially of buildings and mountains. Architectures, monuments, ruins and fragments of stone will be my own obsession throughout.

In the Myddel
The Book of John Mandeville was a medieval bestseller, and possibly the most popular travel narrative ever composed: a Fodor’s Guide to Nonexistent Places, the Rough Guide to Naked Communist Cannibals, the Let’s Go Vale Perilous, the Lonely Planet Guide to Polygamous Fantasy Islands. Its pages abound with realms where one might find professional virgin deflowerers (the gadlybyriens, 87), or hermaphrodites who know the enjoyments of both sexes, or an island where a lady still awaits the kiss that will free her from her dragon’s flesh and reward with wealth, a title, and lands the man so brave as to brush his lips against hers (Hippocrates’s daughter, 29-30). Travel narratives, like bestiaries or romances, allow their readers to enjoy pleasures ordinarily withheld, to consume fantasies otherwise precluded. Just as Satalia, the “greet cité" that “sanke adoun” when one of its dwellers could not resist opening a “grave of marble” and being with his beloved one last time – just as subterranean Satalia renders the paths that cross above “parolous passages” (31), so the Book of John Mandeville likewise possesses its textual perilous passages, marble tombs that when opened could divert pilgrims from their certain and orthodox roads.

For despite the salacity of some of its eventual destinations, the Book begins as a more personalized version of a venerable genre: an account of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Conventionally labeled an itinerarium, this type of writing traces its history back to at least 333 AD, when an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux composed a laconic account of his voyage (the Itinerarium Burdigalense or Itinerarium Hierosolymitanum). Based upon a Roman model of verbal road maps, Christian itineraria tend to be terse records, providing some information on how to get to Jerusalem and a catalog of sites to behold once you arrive. Visited locations and encountered objects are tied through scriptural citation to whatever biblical event gives the building, well, town, mountain, altar its significance. Thus the Pilgrim of Bordeaux writes of some artifacts in Jerusalem:
Here is also the corner of an exceeding high tower, where our Lord ascended and the tempter said to Him, 'If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence' ... There is a great corner-stone, of which it was said, 'The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.'
Even when a fragment or a crumbled ruin is all that remains of the structure that provided the setting for a biblical story, that narrative nonetheless comes fully to present life by invocation: an “exceeding high tower” suddenly looms in a place where a pilgrim beholds its only extant corner. The bodies that once moved across these stages might have perished or risen heavenward long ago, but stones abide the silent centuries to offer lasting testament to the histories that unfolded nearby.

To journey through holy land is to traverse sacred time: you behold the rock of Calvary, and there you meditate upon the Passion as if Jesus and the two thieves were still hanging on their crosses. Pilgrimage is a kind of time travel, the terminus of which is absolution at the site of the resurrection. You might partake of some side excursions (Jericho, the river Jordan, Bethlehem), you might immediately return home, but in a way you are forever stuck at that place of revelation and redemption. There is no compelling story to tell afterwards, because the narrative was never about you in the first place. The Holy Land persists in its timelessness as the traveler (whose soul is now similarly wrenched from the temporal) quickly ends the tale. Pilgrimage is a one-way movement: even if the sketch of a homeward journey is provided, doctrinally speaking there is no return from Palestine.

Although known for its peregrination without certain destination, the Book of John Mandeville likewise almost becomes transfixed here in the middle of the world.

The Rock in the Myd of the Erthe
Mandeville gives us several options for arriving in the Holy Land, and some unanticipated sights to enjoy along the way – including that princess in dragon form and the city sunk below the earth for its necrophiliac resident. I want to skip ahead to Jerusalem for a moment, however, and linger – just as Mandeville does – at the very center of the center. This would be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which is enclosed the rock of Calvary, upon which was set the cross of Christ, atop which Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, under which was found in a crack the head of Adam. A sign in Latin and in Greek announces that we have arrived “in the myd of the erthe” (38). Ground zero – the middle of the middle – is to be found nearby, “in the myddel of this cherche,” within a “compass” [circle] drawn by Joseph of Arimathea: here was placed the corpse of “Oure Lord” after he was taken down from the cross: “And that compass, men seyn, hit is in the myddel of the world” (39).

The pivot of the earth, Jerusalem is central geographically, theologically, and historically – a place where the literal and the metaphorical are indistinguishable, where sign is thing. We find ourselves within the Holy Land, within the walls of Jerusalem, within the church of the tomb, within Joseph’s compass: within, that is, a series of ever shrinking concentric circles that announce, once we can get to no more medial a site, that we have arrived at the locus where time and space are one. For just as we can move no further geographically, so temporality itself seems arrested: we are witnesses with Mandeville of events that occurred thirteen or fourteen hundred years ago, a living history caught in an eternal loop. Thus not only can we glimpse the red stains of Christ’s blood upon the mortice that secured his cross, but the chains that held him to a pillar when he was scourged. Not far from Joseph’s compass was the cross itself entombed, placed “under a roche” by Jews. Almost every step of this sacrosanct expanse brings to mind a story from the Bible, brings sacred narrative into the present to unfold once more. The center of the earth would seem a place of profound stasis, inscribed with a history so holy that the very stones retain its crimson imprint.

Except that these precincts are inhabited, and not by Joseph of Arimathea or Adam or Abraham or the Virgin Mary: “This lond of Jerusalem hath y-be in hond of diverse nacions, as Jewes, Cananeus, Assirienes, Perces, Medoynes, Massydoyns, Grecis, Romayns, Cristen men, Sarasyns, Barbaryns, and Turkes, and many other naciouns with hem” (37). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Constantinople’s addition to the Levantine landscape. A Muslim Sultan now owns the building, and he has built a fence around the tomb of Jesus to prevent pilgrims from chiseling souvenir pebbles. Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin, and other crusaders who held but could not keep the city are buried nearby. The cross of Christ and the nails that secured him to its wood were long ago discovered and carried away, the latter now possessed by “paynems and Sarasyns.” Within the church that has engulfed this sacred region in stone, the priests who say the masses do not use a familiar liturgy. Rocks and tombs that once held secrets – subterranean or stonework spaces that had enclosed bodies and relics and kept them transfixed – these have all been opened, emptied. In the middle of the world, history carries on: clergy go about their business indifferent to Roman changes to the mass, colonizers and tourists of various faiths come and go, the Sultan who owns the place remodels with his own architectural additions.

“The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”

To quote Wallace Stevens on “silent Palestine” is to go too far: Mandeville never implies that this sacred dominion where the Passion unfolded is as empty as that compass marking “the myddel of the world.”

And yet …


Greg Carrier said...

One thing that strikes me is that this has a lot in common with the labyrinths that are present in some medieval churches (Chartres being the most famous instance).

That's how I was thinking of Mandeville as I was listening to your talk at SEMA.

I would like to posit the possibility that the Book does not fully encircle the world in its peregrinations precisely because it is a labyrinth in and of itself. I have not yet been to Chartres (alas!), but having seen pictures of the labyrinth, it's remarkable how many times you get tantalisingly close to the centre...and then suddenly veer away, finding yourself even further away than before.

Perhaps the Book is not necessarily so much 'in the myddel' as it is of the margins: I think that what the Book is attempting to suggest is that it is precisely the journey that counts more than the destination. Once you have reached the centre of the labyrinth, you must once again leave it - we cannot bend or break the rules and (magically) teleport ourselves outside of the maze itself.

That 'missing space' in Mandeville's journey around the world is, to me, the result of the journey in the labyrinth itself. Even if we follow the exact same route back 'home', back out of the 'myddel', our priorities and views have changed as a result of that journey into the myddel in the first place. The journey itself is thus not exactly the same as it was coming in - there is that little piece, that little difference that distinguishes between the journey into the myddel, to Jerusalem, and back home again.

One more point and I'll zip it and let others reply.

Where exactly is the myddel? Is not the experience of being in the myddel different for a traveller from England or Bordeaux as it is for someone who already lives in the myddel (in this instance, in or near Jerusalem)? This needs further explication, I think, because it also comes back to the idea of peregrination and whether it's unidirectional or not.

I often wonder if Mandeville and/or his author considered England to be the myddel when Mandeville was in Jerusalem. Perhaps by turning around right before getting back to England, 'Mandeville' (however we wish to see him, as the author or ... 'character' in the 'story') was able to maintain this idea (not fiction!) that England was indeed the myddel, or at the very least, a myddel of sorts.

Just as at Chartres, 'Mandeville' has traversed a labyrinth of sorts - the only question is, was he going into the labyrinth in the place, or leaving it?

Greg Carrier said...

I suppose I could (and probably should) clarify the question I have at the end of my post.

Yes, Mandeville does say that he is leaving England and going to Jerusalem; yes, we have reminders that Jerusalem is the myddel of the earth; yes, in a religious context, as well as a cartographical one, Jerusalem is the myddel, as England is on the margins.

That I do not dispute. What I'm trying to get at with my question, I think, is the issue of where exactly Mandeville fits in all of this. If he is going towards Jerusalem, he's almost literally stepping onto the map from near-nothingness, especially when one thinks of how England was... minimally represented, let us say, on medieval maps.

In a way, what this does is it suggests just as fantastical a journey - the journey from near-nothingness or from marginality to something far more tangible.

If, however, Mandeville is really leaving the myddel, then it brings up the question of what exactly the 'myddel' is. We tend to think of it as being a point of accessibility. We can take many routes to get there, just as we can take many routes back out of it. However, if Mandeville is leaving the myddel - England - then there really aren't many options for him, are there? He can go to France. He can go to Ireland. He can go to Scotland. He can go to Scandinavia. The only way he can get places is to go through these other locales, unless he decides to imitate St Brendan and set off in a boat across the seas.

It's almost as if his journey across land is meant to evoke this same imagery of the sea being home to wondrous, mythical, and terrible beasts and forces of nature.

Perhaps what Mandeville is trying to do is remain off the map in the first place. After all, the most wondrous things live and happen off the map, and the margins themselves are much larger than the myddel itself. (If we think in terms of a map, this becomes clear: the edges/margins of the world are much larger/longer than the myddel.)

The myddel itself is an invitation to explore the margins - there is far more room as one approaches the margins for remarkable events to occur, just as they did in Jerusalem when it was itself on the margins in the time of Christ and the Roman emperors.

Right. Will stop now - ha.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Greg, will get to these as time permits, likely as I add more portions to what I've posted. But I do want you to thank you for posting, and also for your time after my plenary. It was a pleasure to meet you.