Friday, March 06, 2009

Weekend Fun? Reading Alla's Britoun Book

by Karl Steel

Last week, I read the Man of Law's Tale (hereafter MLT) for the second time (I think) and taught it for the first (I should say: I tried to teach it, since my students refused to leave the prologue alone: they love the Host, and they love the horizontal optative affiliations of the pilgrimage as a countermodel to the 'natural' English hierarchical communities of city or kingdom). Because I can't leave well enough alone, and just because I'm hung up, I'm throwing myself into the breach again next Wednesday before moving us onto the Wife of Bath's Prologue.

I'm hung up on the "Britoun book" of MLT 666. Some background: our heroine, Pauline Custance, after having escaped Syria by washing ashore in Northumbria, is now wrongly accused of murdering Hermengyld, one of her (newly) Christian Northumbrian protectors. The actual murderer is of course a lascivious knight outraged by Custance's virtue. In the relevant stanzas, Custance is on the verge of execution, when King Alla of Northumbria--astonishingly without feminine assistance--tries to find an out:

This Alla kyng hath swich compassioun,
As gentil herte is fulfild of pitee,
That from his eyen ran the water doun.
"Now hastily do fecche a book," quod he,
"And if this knyght wol sweren how that she
This womman slow, yet wol we us avyse
Whom that we wole that shal been oure justise."

A britoun book, written with evaungiles,
Was fet, and on this book he swoor anoon
She gilty was, and in the meene whiles
An hand hym smoot upon the nekke-boon,
That doun he fil atones as a stoon,
And bothe his eyen broste out of his face
In sighte of every body in that place. (II.659-672)
Now, I'm not a Chaucerian, and, once again, I'm new to MLT, and I haven't read all that Kathy Lavezzo has to say on it, and for the life of me I can't recall the substance of Mary Kate's Kzoo 2007 paper on MLT and Bede (that right?), so take the following claims cum grano salis: the Chaucer Bibliography Online doesn't suggest that there's a lot on the Britoun Book, and neither do searches on Google Books and eBrary (which includes JJC's Medieval Identity Machines and Heng's Empire of Magic): there's a bit on it in Elizabeth Robertson's essay on "Nonviolent Christianity" here and in Patricia Clare Ingham on "Contrapunctal Histories" here and a fair amount of attention on it in Don-John Dugas's "The Legitimization of Royal Power in Chaucer’s ’Man of Law’s Tale’" (Modern Philology 95 (1997): 27-43). Despite the onrush of postcolonial criticism on MLT (by Dinshaw, Susan Schibanoff, Kathryn Lynch, &c.), it seems that the "Britoun book" hasn't been gummed to death yet by Chaucerians.

Let's commence gumming, then. Here are the peculiarities: if you don't know MLT, Custance had been sent to Syria by her father, the Emperor of Rome, to marry its Sultan; to secure the marriage, the Sultan converts from Islam to Christianity, and is promptly martyred (with all his allies) by his vengeful and pious mother. Thus Custance arrives in Northumbria from a (very temporarily) Christian East. Northumbria itself is largely pagan, although pockets of Christians survive here and there in "privetee" (II.548), but especially in Wales (II.544). Alla himself converts to Christianity only after the miracle in II.668-72. As Lavezzo (and I'm sure others) have observed, Alla's name necessarily recalls Allah. How can we read this scene of Christianity and conversion and swearing? How should we understand the "Britoun book," which might remind you of another "certain very ancient book written in the British language" as much as it reminds you of a certain Biblical story?

I have tentatively proposed understanding the book as an element in a systematic (and all too obvious) effacement of the Eastern origins of Christianity.
  • Bear in mind that the Man of Law complains that the stars "hurlest al from est til occident / that naturelly wolde holde another way" (II.297-8), which contradicts not only Ptolemy (who says stars move East to West) but also a gloss in Hengwrt and Ellesmere that reads "semper ab Oriente in Occidentem" (cited in Lynch "Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy : East and West in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale." Chaucer Review 33: 409-22, at 416): faced with evidence that light routinely comes out of the East, the ML distorts the scientific evidence, and is called out on it by the glosses themselves!
  • What Christianity there had been in the East appears only to be almost immediately extirpated at its root; later, the Roman Christians massacre the remaining Syrians (II.960-967), as if salting the Earth from which Christianity sprung;
  • Alla should also be heard as Allah: I'm not sure what to make of this except to suggest that it relocates "Allah" from the East to West, converts him to Christianity, and shows him in possession of a Gospel book written in...Welsh?
  • the roots of English Christianity either come directly from Rome (in the form of Custance) or go even deeper, back into Wales, the site of Britain's primordial past, the place (and the place of the language) that signals its earliest days
Admittedly, this is not much to go on, but it's the beginning of a reading I hope to push a bit further in class on Wednesday.

What have you done with these stanzas? What has been done that I'm missing? And, if you've picked up anything from this discussion, what would you do with them now? Edit: And, if it strikes you, how could I engage such a reading with gender?


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Who in Chaucer's England would be troubled over Christianity's potential oriental origin? Why efface it? What's at stake?

To me the most relevant work here is, really, Nicholas Howe, "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England." What's being effaced in the MLT -- just as Bede systematically effaced it -- is the fact that the Britons/Welsh possessed a Christianity far more ancient than anything the English held, as well as an enduring claim on lands seized by the Anglo-Saxons. Bede makes it seem as if A-S Xianity derived directly from Rome in order to forget (Eileen!) that its Christianity likely came from cohabitation with Britons. I can dig out some biblio on this if it is useful.

Chaucer is likewise hellbent upon forgetting the Britons/Welsh and their claim upon the island. He obviously knew that certain very old Briton book ... and we seem remnants of that book persisting, bubbling up in the Galfridian names of the Franklin's T. I'd argue we see the same thing here: an oblique and grudging and all too quite acknowledgment that before England, there was Britain ... and that not all the Britons had fled to Wales as primal England became suddenly Christian.

Tom E said...

Alla is mentioned in Bede, isn't he? The king Gregory puns on as "Alleluia?" At least I assume that's where Chaucer picks up this name (the chronological period of MLT is rather murky and confused, but it is supposed to be the early Anglo-Saxon period in Britain). I haven't read Lavesso, so maybe this is addressed by her. Still, I wonder how much of "Alla" is really supposed to recall "Allah" and how much he is simply supposed to recall "Anglo-Saxon King important in converting the island to Christianity." Not that the name couldn't work both ways, naturally, but I wonder if the historical resonance isn't more important here than the linguistic similarities to an important Eastern religious word.

And if Chaucer is drawing from Bede...well, I'm not sure if that means anything special, other than it shows Chaucer sharing the same historical framework as Bede (Xianity from Rome; British not involved) as Jeffrey mentioned.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Great posting and discussion here. I do like the idea (posited by many recent scholars) that modern readers can *entertain* and explore the possible sonic resonance between the names "Alla" and "Allah" and all that might entail - but my gut feeling is that the name Alla or Alle(e) in the ME and AN cognates of this narrative would have conjured up to British/French readers more of a "general aura of an illustrious pre-Conquest Saxon antiquity" than evoking the East/Orient.

That being said, Chaucer's "Britoun" book is compelling b/c it surprisingly goes out of its way to render *more* visible a Briton Christianity that may have preceded the arrival of the Saxons. Compare Trivet's AN version of the tale, which does *not* specify the actual language of the Gospel used in the swearing episode. When the AN text *does* specify linguistic difference, it's often pointing out the presence of Saxon English specifically: e.g. when the blind "Bruton" man is miraculously given his sight it's right after Hermigild invokes Christ's name "en sa langage Sessoine" (FYI, snippets of "Saxon" English are sprinkled throughout the AN text).

It's possible that the AN text imagines/represents an emphatically "Saxonized" Christianity in this moment but I wonder if the blind "Bruton" has actually been assimilated to the extent that he'd even consider this "langage Sessoine" his own. Maybe Chaucer's artfully fleeting references to "Britoun" culture in the MLT are actually unearthing - rather than submerging - these cultural influences.

As for gender - since the book-swearing is a courtroom scene, perhaps think about the role of physical body and models of justice? The knight who swears a false oath is immediately punished and his body falls apart (fist smites him, eyes pop out; then executed); the woman's body (and virtue) constant, steady. Note gendered models of justice - swift immediate punishment for knight vs. womanly "routhe" at knight's death. Gendered justice also sets up the WBT very nicely - Arthur would have killed the knight, the inquest of ladies exhibits mercy. etc. etc.

Karl Steel said...

I don't recall that Lavezzo mentions the Bede connection in re: Alla's name. I'm inclined to continue to go w/ the Allah thing as being present alongside the AS name because of the Syrian element in the story. It's not really a matter of more or less importance so far as I'm concerned: I'm more interested in it as a kind of ghostly or nagging presence that helps double up Syria (Custance travels over sea; converts pagan land; various pagan names invoked (see II. 330-336); is driven from marriage by mother-in-law). Part of what's going on here, I think, is an exploration of the impossibility of conversion (getting this modified from Schibanoff, I think): note that the Syrian conversion doesn't take, and neither, really, does the Northumbrian: after all, what of Custance stays in England? Maybe some converts, but Custance herself returns to Rome after a brief and notably untriumphant time in Northumbria (II.1128-41), and as for Maurice, he just stays in Rome.

That said, nothing's really been lost, because Britain doesn't really need to be converted. Which brings me to my next point:

Who in Chaucer's England would be troubled over Christianity's potential oriental origin? Why efface it? What's at stake?

I'm not sure yet. First, I'd say that the relation to the Welsh past is exactly counter to Bede's Roman centering: otherwise, why mention the persistence of Welsh Christianity in MLT at all? Not mentioning them would have been simple, since given his many changes to Trevet, he's under no obligation to mention any of this in this work [anyone know off hand if the Welsh are in Nicholas Trevet?]

In other words, I have to disagree that Chaucer is "hellbent" on forgetting the Welsh. The MLT references are a lot less oblique than the Franklin's T. After all, he actually says "Walys" and even includes a "Britoun" book as evidence!

Why run counter to the usual practice of not mentioning Wales, or of mentioning it only to disenchant it (as he does in Wife of Bath's T, where time of Arthur is at its root time of rape...or a time of preArthurian fairies/matriarchy)? The obvious answer is that situating Christianity in some deep British past rather than in some Roman or 'Oriental' past undercuts 'contamination' from the East. It's an exchange of one deep history (one tangled up with Muslims and Jews) for another, the Welsh, that is perhaps less fraught with cultural and geographical anxiety.

This idea may well be a dead end, but I don't think it should be shut down just yet.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

What was I high on yesterday? Hellbent? Chaucer is not hellbent upon anything, and that unimpassioned narratorial style is one of his trademarks.

Chaucer is fairly systematic in his omissions of Britain (or his substitution of England for the same): thus no narrative of how Britain is converted, but one of Northumbria becoming Christian. Karl, don't you think that Northumbria is henceforth permanently Christian, thus the pilgrimage that brings Alla and son to Rome? There is an origin story embedded here, one that recalls Bede and Augustine, I think.

I'm still puzzling over why Eastern origins for Christianity would cause any discomfort. The English aristocracy often enjoyed thinking of themselves as Eastern immigrants (they were from Troy, and this lack of being indigenous made them superior to those who were of the local earth). Also, the East is -- or can be -- seen as being the best of all possible places. Cf. Mandeville: "vertu of thynges is in the myddel” … and Palestine is “in the middel of the worlde,” therefore the best geography for origins.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

By the way this is an intriguing discussion; thanks for instigating it, Karl.

I've also always been rather skeptical of the Allah/Alla resonance, if only because I've always thought the name likely brings Gregory and his puns to mind more than Islam for 14th C English ears.

Karl Steel said...

Will do more at length tomorrow, but briefly, in this hit and run, first, thanks Jonathan!, and then...:

Chaucer is fairly systematic in his omissions of Britain

Maybe elsewhere, but in this case....why would he add the 'Britoun' book? Note another possible Welsh reference, discussed in A. C. Breeze, "The Bret Glascurion and Chaucer's House of Fame," RES 45 (1994): 63-69 (cited in very relevant article I just read), which is: AC Breeze "The Celtic Gospels in Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" The Chaucer Review 32 (1998): 335-38, argues that the book is NOT written in Welsh, but is rather a book "written and illuminated in the Celtic manner" (336), like the Book of Kells or the Book of St. Chad (aka Lichfield Gospels). He doesn't draw any conclusions from this point, though, although he does observe, interestingly, that there were 16th-c. Welsh claims, absent any evidence, that vernacular Welsh gospels had circulated in the early days of Welsh Christianity.

I'm still puzzling over why Eastern origins for Christianity would cause any discomfort.

All this is highly tentative, and I hope to think more about it tomorrow, BUT, in re:
Palestine is “in the middel of the worlde,” I know that England's on the edge of the world in world maps, but cf. medieval 'racial' theories (e.g. William of Malmesbury on Council of Clermont) in which the "middle" is, essentially, wherever the speaker is (the Southerners are sneaky and thin-blooded, the Northerners are ferocious and thick-blooded, and we here in the temperate areas occupy the happy medium).

At this point, I can just say that I'm inspired by various contemporary elements in certain modern Christianities that create a WASP Christianity: the 'white Jesus' of so much Christian kitsch, sects that argue that the King James Version is a new Revelation against which the Hebrew and Greek texts should be corrected, and descriptions of Palestine and Mesopotamia as the "Islamic world" (and "worse" by various bigots), which efface the Christianities [and other faiths] of these regions that, so far as I know, have been in these regions for the last 2000 years. I wonder, also, the 1365 Alexandria crusade and Eastern Christianity.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I haven't read it yet this morning, but I see that Eileen has posted on forgetting again, so I'm thinking that this conversation you've started Karl and the one Eileen initiated are two strands of a single thread.

Forgetting is an active process, not passive. Forgetting strives to create a tabula rasa, an empty field, a country whose indigenes are consigned to its past, but forgetting is nonetheless stuck with a world and a present that are too full -- of bodies and rubble and war, in the case of what Eileen wrote about Grozny, or of contemporary persons possessed of a living, changing culture in the case of the Welsh. What that means practically speaking is that skulls from "forgotten" massacres are going to unearthed beneath new urban architectures, or (more mildly) names important to Welsh nationalism will surface across the Channel in an Anglicised Breton lay, or Briton books will appear in Northumbria and suggest that another story besides the "Christianity direct to England from Rome" narrative persist. (By the way I always assumed this book had to be in Latin, the lingua franca of Custance's world, and of her Christianity: Briton describes origin, not linguistic contents).

The racializing interpretation will be an interesting road to follow, Karl. Carolyn Dinshaw paved some of it, using "pale" rather white ("Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 19-41) and much work by Suzanne Conklin Akbari is relevant and useful, but especially “Orientation and Nation in the Canterbury Tales,” in Chaucer’s Cultural Geography (2002) and “From Due East to True North: Orientalism and Orientation,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages. She's surveyed the relevant work on medieval racial whiteness.

Eileen Joy said...

As regards the consideration of race/whiteness/paleness [and also sexuality] in relation to early English Christianity and also how England envisioned itself as both on the edge of the world but also as a kind of "center," see:

Kathy Lavezzo, "Gregory's Boys: The Homoerotic Production of English Whiteness," in _Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England_, ed. Carol Braun Pasternack and Lisa Weston [MRTS, 2004]

Martin Foys, "The Virtual Reality of the Anglo-Saxon Mappamundi," Literature Compass, vol. 1, no. 1 [2005]; online journal

Here is my capsule review of Lavezzo's essay from The Year's Work in Old English Studies 2004 [I realize now, too, that my capsule summary does not include a lot of what Lavezzo does with ideas of the East in the A-S imagination, especially in relation to the slave trade, so it is well worth looking at]:

“Gregory’s Boys: The Homoerotic Production of English Whiteness” (Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Pasternack and Weston, 63-90), by Kathy Lavezzo, examines Ælfric’s English prose homily on Gregory, which includes Gregory’s famous encounter with Anglo-Saxon slave boys in the Roman marketplace, in order to demonstrate how “the intertwining of Englishness, male-male desire, and religiosity . . . has a long history” (65). . . . it is Lavezzo’s contention that, in the case of the Gregory story . . . the question of how “the love of a boy could be marshaled in the name of national affection remains to be addressed in a thoroughgoing manner” (67-68). More specifically, Lavezzo sees Ælfric’s account of the Gregory story as “offering us an excellent means of investigating the imbrication of national and queer desires in Anglo-Saxon England,” for “Ælfric seeks imaginatively to respond to and transcend the problem of boy love in his monastic culture, by symbolically transforming it into a love of England.” Lavezzo argues that Ælfric does this “through what we might anachronistically term a racialist fantasy.” To whit, “by constructing whiteness as a physical trait that is ineluctably bound up with Christian election, Ælfric manages to marshal the erotic investment his monastic culture had in boys for distinctly national ends” (68). In his homily on Gregory, in which Lavezzo argues that that “prime signifier of the English Christian’s election is inexorably physical,” Ælfric “encourages the Anglo-Saxons to imagine themselves as belonging to a chosen Christian people, whose worthiness for conversion inspires a long religious expedition” (73). To answer the question of why Ælfric would “enlist such a celebration of young male physicality in his national project,” Lavezzo turns to the treatment of boys in Anglo-Saxon monastic culture, where male children could also be the victims of sexual abuse. Evidence for this can be found in the penitentials, where many of the canons focus on young men and their sexual interactions with each other and with older men. Ælfric’s own treatment of male-male sexual relations in his literary corpus indicate his squeamishness over the subject, and even his occasional suppression of it. It may be, as Lavezzo asserts, that Ælfric overcame the problem of the illicit homoerotic aspects of the Gregory legend through his “fetishization” of the slave boys’ whiteness which could be linked to their supposedly angel-like nature, thereby rendering them as both embodied and disembodied at once. As Lavezzo writes, “[t]hrough this fetishization of whiteness, Ælfric imagines how the beautiful young male bodies that could lead to dire spiritual consequences for the monks in his culture instead do quite the opposite: enable the spiritual election of the English themselves” (85). As a kind of side-note, Lavezzo mentions that the status of the boys in the Gregory story as slaves—which fact may have conjured the image, for the Anglo-Saxon audience, of the boys being sold into sexual bondage, perhaps even in Islam—might have “intensified the disturbing national ramifications of the abuse of oblates in monasteries,” but that ultimately, “as enslaved boys, who never speak but are spoken for, the Anglo-Saxon youths constitute a ‘blank slate’ upon which Gregory may inscribe a chosen national identity for the English” (87). While Ælfric’s version of the Gregory legend may reflect certain specific conditions of the time in which he wrote, for Lavezzo, the story “also reminds us of certain troubling aspects that nearly always seem to accompany homosocial nationalisms” (88). More precisely, the slave-boy myth is a masculinist version of history that “excludes woman and her reproductive power,” while it also elides the historical boy as much as the historical woman. It performs, as it were, a kind of vanishing act and spectralization of real persons upon which the very modern project of nationhood has long depended.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh, and here is the abstract for Martin's essay, which is excellent, I might add:

"Reading the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon mappamundi– the oldest such English map surviving – as a form of a virtual world more analogous to the digital environment of virtual reality than physical geography can reveal much about this famous map's cultural mechanics and meaning. As more than simply a measurement of the world known to Anglo-Saxon England, the Cotton Map charts a number of struggles between the twin realities of England's marginal locus in the historical record of the known physical world, and of the Anglo-Saxons’ impulse to recentre the world on their own island. In light of this tension, this article studies the formal and textual elements of the Cotton Map in relation to Christian theographic traditions of medieval mappaemundi, classical representations of early Britain, the formation of Anglo-Saxon identity, and the geopolitical context of eleventh-century England. Applying recent theories on the function of digital virtuality in the representation and construction of reality to this study shows in turn how this map virtually fashions a particular form of Anglo-Saxon reality – one driven by a geographic desire for a future not spent on the edge of the world."

Karl Steel said...

First, Jonathan:
Gendered justice also sets up the WBT very nicely - Arthur would have killed the knight, the inquest of ladies exhibits mercy. etc. etc.
Thanks very much for this. Teaching WB Tale in 2 weeks, and I will certainly use this, linking it back to the scene in the forest clearing in KnT.

And thanks Jeffrey for the words on memory. Well put, and useful.

My searches for attitudes regarding Eastern origins of Christianity in the Western Middle Ages, let alone late medieval England, have hit a wall. The best lead I've found so far is Stephen Prickett, "Purging Christianity of Its Semitic Origins: Kingsley, Arnold and the Bible." Rethinking Victorian Culture. Ed. Juliet John, Alice Jenkins, and John Sutherland Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 2000. 63-79. Not much of a lead at all, I'm afraid. I have in mind the attitudes I sensed growing up in a VERY white fundamentalist church and have sensed in contemporary reporting or encounters with various bigots talking about the Middle East; I have in mind a certain famous line in a famous book. Can I presume that the East was likewise a scandal for Western (or Anglo, or Anglo-Hibernian) Christianity in the 14th century? Can't presume, no, but can suspect.

With your suggestions, I just read, as in just now, the Akbari in the Poco MA. Good article, and especially useful for this: "yet this disjunction ["between modern [Orientalist and postcolonial] theory and medieval practice"] can be seen not as a moment of theory's inadequacy in the face of medieval culture but rather as a gap that reveals a site where medieval culture has participated in the generation of a norm taken for granted in the construction of the modern theoretical paradigm" (31). However, a central claim of the article strikes me as false: maybe. She writes, "It is only the fourteenth century, as seen here in Gower's account, that the Orient comes to be known as a place of overwhelming heat" (29). But cf. William of Malmesbury (qting from John Sharp translation, as I can't afford the newer one) on Council of Clermont, "It is apparent that every race born in that region [on this see below], being scorched with the heat of the sun, abounds more in reflection than in blood; and, therefore, they avoid coming to close quarters, because they are aware of how little blood they possess" (296). The question here is what William means by "that region": I'd have to check the Latin, but even here, I'm not sure if I could determine whether he means Southern Iberia, about which Urban had just been talking, or the 'Orient,' to which Urban is sending the crusaders. At any rate, I was surprised not to see this important speech discussed in this particular Akbari article.

I read that Dinshaw thing on pale faces last week and found it moving, particularly the meditative stuff about her father in the last chunk of the essay. But I wanted the philological investigations into "pale" (perhaps better trans. as 'pallid') to draw from a wider corpus than Chaucer: I liked the opening ref. to Mandeville and the 'pale' faces of India, and wanted more like that. I was surprised that she didn't cite this miracle of the True Cross (or maybe she did? My notes are a bit thin) in Cursor Mundi:
Sarazines foure þe kyng can mete
Blak & blo as leed þei were
Miche richesse wiþ hem þei bere
Men say neuer bifore þat houre
So frowarde shapen creatoure
Of her blac hewe was selcouþe
In her brestis þei bare her mouþe
Longe & syde her browes weren
And rau3t al aboute her eren
In her forhede was her si3t
Loke my3t þei not vpri3t
Her armes hery wiþ blak hyde
Her elbowes were set in her syde
Crompled knees & bouche on bak
Þe kyng wondride on hem & spak
Whenne hem bihelde þe kyngis oost
Þei low3en alle leste and moost
On her knees þei hem sett
And hendely þe kyng þei gret
To þe kyng seide þay
Saaf be þou sir now & ay
What þou berest lat vs se
To fonde if goddis wille hit be
Shewe vs þe sauyng tre sir kyng
For wel woot we wiþouten lesyng
Peyne on þat tre suffere he shal
Þe kyng of blis for his folk al
Shewe vs þe tre out of were
Þerfore are we comen here
Byholden vs ynou3e hastou
Oure froward shap þou seest now
Ful loþely are we but also looþe
Is euel mannes soule & body boþe
Þes 3erdes þre wiþynne her roote
A3eyne alle eueles are bote
Þei shul vs 3elde bifore þi si3t
Feirenes bi grace of god almy3t
Of hem shal ryde oure raunsoun
And of alle oure synnes pardoun
To hem þat mercy for her synne
Cryeþ to ihesu of dauid kynne
Þe my3te of hem sir lete vs proue
Wiþ þat þe kyng took of his gloue
Þo braunchis of so mychel blis
He helde hem to hem for to kis
Þei kneled & kist hem also tite
Als soone her hyde bicoom white
And of þe fre blood had þei þe hew

Al her shap was turned new
Of mankynde hadde þei þe met
In ri3t kynde were þei set
Bifore þe kyng þenne fel þei doun
And maden vchone her orisoun
Þei wepte & þanked god of my3t
Al þat folk þat say þat si3t
Þe richesse þat þei wiþ hem ladde
Þei offered þat þat þei hadde
Hemself a3eyn þei toke þe sty
And wenten hoom to ethyopy.

Probably more useful for my purposes [and now, it's clear that, like Eileen, I'm using ITM as my note-taking receptacle] might be Christine Chism, "Too Close for Comfort: Dis-Orienting Chivalry in the Wars of Alexander," in Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Giles, Text and Territory, as the article engages with the productive scandal of Alexander's Eastern origins in the North West Midlands in the 14th century. If I wanted to keep pushing at this, I'd probably connect MLT to the Spectral Jew, IF I can determine whether medieval Western Christians thought of Jews (apart from the ones behind Alexander's wall) as particularly 'Eastern' (and thus both geographical AND temporal originary figures for Christianity). Ultimately, a reading like this would productively connection with the Prioress's Tale.

Karl Steel said...

My point, now--and thanks Eileen for the references to Lavezzo and Foys--is that, contra Dinshaw, I'm not sure race (or tropes of whiteness as blankness or emptiness or lacunae) is the best catalyst for readings of MLT in the way I'm proposing: I think geography and time are.

I'm also thinking that the legends of Joseph of Arimathea in England (which, from a quick (*cough*) Wikipedia check, were developed thoroughly by William of Malmesbury) would be useful here, as there's a sense here of providing Christianity with a particularly Insular origin....

theswain said...

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to be boring here, and probably repeat some of what has been hinted at and make it explicit. I doubt it will be helpful, but I shall put an oar in anyway.

A) Let's remember that Bede is one of the most widely read authors of the Middle Ages and that even as late as the 14th century, a large part of "patristic" lore is filtered and known by reading Bede rather than the originating author. So much so that Dante includes seeing Bede in heaven. Thus, the story of Gregory's visit to the market place recorded in Bede's HE ii.1 would be well known to Chaucer and his audience, including and especially Aelle and the play on words Alleluia, Middle Englished to Alla. So I don't think we need to think of it as Chaucer riffing on Alla>Allah, he's simply referring to the well known tale.

B) Britoun Book-I think Jeffrey's later comment right on the money, substantiated by an article Karl mentions. Again, looking to Bede and other Latin sources from the A-S period still read in England in Chaucer's day, they were well aware of British Christianity and well aware that British Christianity produced books, esp. gospel books. Bede and other sources tell them this. There is no need to posit either a vernacular text or anything extraordinary there. In fact, some of the churches such as Glastonbury would claim to have such British books on their altars in a game of "we're older, therefore more authoritative" sort of thing.

C) Bede is not attempting to forget British Christianity in contrast to Rome. He's indicting British Christianity because according to Bede they failed to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Recall that he spends the majority of his first book talking about how Christianity comes to the island, and Pelagian heresy etc. It is clearly an indictment in the back of the MLT tale, as Aelle isn't Christian in spite of a "Britoun book" with the gospels ready to hand. I think Jonathan correct that the tale goes out of the way to mention the British gospel book, and I think it throws into relief the pagan leaders of Northumbria in spite of the presence of British Christians making books.

D) It is also good to remember that according to Bede, Roman Christianity did fail to convert Northumbria. The Irish did that (and again note *NOT* the British!), and the Council of Whitby decided Northumbria for the Roman style vs. the "Irish" style of Christianity--but it was the Irish who did the successful conversion there, and Bede overall has very good things to say about the Irish. What's that to do with Constance? Well, Bede tells us that Northumbria did briefly convert under Paulinus and King Edwin, and on Edwin's death (in part at the hands of the Christian British king Cadwalla!) reverts back to paganism. The MLT tells a similar story slightly early in time to the Paulinus-Edwin story of conversion and sliding back....and it can since such a story does not contradict what they know as history and at the same time can invent a whole new history.

E) I'm not sure why one thinks that the Eastern origins of Christianity cause embarrassment in MLT. Even Chaucer's age was well aware of those origins and celebrated saints and feasts and read patristic authors (translated of course) from those regions. *BUT* they are also aware of the advent of Islam and that the East is no longer part of Christendom--they know how small the Byzantine Empire has shrunk by this point. Many go on pilgrimage (as Margery Kempe for example did) and see for themselves the "infidel" in control of the once Christian east. For their mindset, it isn't at all important whether there are Christians living in those lands, the lands themselves are not Christian because they are not ruled by Christians, and so are not part of Christendom. So I don't think its an embarrassment at all so much as recognition that the East is not Christian.

F) I find the historical "squishing" typical of late medieval things too. They're aware in a vague way that Aelle, Gregory, and the Mohammed are all about the same time "way back then", and they are pretty close, Aelle and Gregory live in the late sixth century, Mohammed in the late sixth, early seventh, and by the late seventh Muslim forces occupy Syria. But they've blurred the lines a bit to get Aelle, Muslim Syria, etc to all line up for the tale...part of that forgetting that was mentioned I think.

G) Re: the East as a place of heat, let me point you to Wonders of the East, or the fact that in the OE Exodus the Israelites can not enter the land of the Sigelhweara because of the intense heat, etc. Letter of Alexander to Aristotle too...

H)I also find interesting that Bede's story of Edwin and Paulinus narratively is the same structure as the MLT: in both we have a Christian princess betrothed to a "pagan" king who converts in large part for the princess and makes peace, dies and becomes a saint, but his land reverts to paganism thereafter. In the MLT we in some sense have the pattern repeated twice: first for the Syrian and then the Northumbrian with a few changes hither and yon. That is, at both ends of the world if you will, utter East and utter West the same story is played out, and in both Christianity fails to make permanent inroads.

I) One more point and I'm done.....there is truly a sense in Bede, not just the History, but especially in Lives of the Abbots, his lives of Cuthbert etc. of England, the ends of the world, becoming the receptacle of the true, (i.e. Roman) Christian faith, and then preserving that and passing it back to Europe, thus being more or less the "saviors" of Europe and Christianity. The edge becomes the middle (or the least becomes the greatest to refer to the gospels). It is an idea that can be traced from Bede to the late middle ages, to the Protestant Reformation to the Victorians and beyond....England's green and pleasant land is a bit of heaven don't you know.

Ok, I think I've covered all my points. Maybe one was of use. I'd be interested, Karl, in what you end up doing with the MLT if you don't mind posting on it later.

Karl Steel said...

Swain, thanks for all this; all wise words; I'm *still* inclined to think that the Eastern origins of Xianity must have been a scandal for Western Xians just as the Jewish origins of Xianity were a scandal for Xians. This 'scandal,' which I observed in my own Xian upbringing, and have observed in popular culture in contemporary American, I'm convinced must be able to trace its roots to the Middle Ages. Do I have evidence yet? No. Am I making assertions against available evidence? Likely? That's why I'm 'suspecting' rather than 'asserting.'

In re: Bede, I know I could figure this out for sure myself, but my sense is that Bede by Dante's time is better known as a theologian and commentator than as a historian. To get a sense of Alla/Ella/&c I've just spent more time than I should have checking Trevisa's translation of Higden's Polychronicon (after a quick check of Richard of Cirencester's Speculum Historiale de Gestis regum Angliae). I determined that: a) the stories you cite are known in 14th-century England; b) that, at least in the editions available to me, no one seems to have felt the need the gloss our king to point out that his name is not a version of 'Allah'; c) that--this is sort of interesting--the Higden/Trevisa (V.9) has the death of Alla and the story of Emperor Maurice right next to each other [although there's otherwise no relation between the two].

Note, however, that the ML doesn't really claim this story as history. He's not like the Knight is that regard. Rather, it's a story passed on to him by merchants, so it's self-consciously flagged, if not as fiction, then perhaps not *quite* as history....make of that what you will.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I think I would be very careful about assuming that the Eastern origins of Christianity "must have been a scandal for Western Xians just as the Jewish origins of Xianity were a scandal for Xians"--I think "scandal" is just simply the wrong term. Two things:

1) the ways in which we think of East and West today are, in some respects, radically different than the ways in which these "regions," so to speak, were culturally and otherwise "mapped" in the Middle Ages, especially in the early Middle Ages [and also in late antiquity]

2) the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is much more complex than any statement about how the former posed "problems" or "scandal" for the latter could possibly even begin to explain. One of the best texts on this subject is Andrew Scheil's "The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England" [Michigan, 2004], where he writes, "Jews were a meditative vehicle for exegesis; an exemplum of the direction of God’s shaping hand throughout history; a record of the divine patterns of the historical imagination; a subject for epic and elegy; an outlet for anger and rage; a dark, fearful image of the body; a useful political tool—all in all, a variform way of fashioning a Christian populus in England and continually redefining its nature. In Anglo-Saxon England, Jews and Judaism signify not image, but process; not a stable concept, but a complex negotiation" [p. 3].

Undoubtedly, Judaism posed real problems for medieval Christians who needed Jews to be temporally Other [fixed firmly in a past supposedly superseded] but yet lived side-by-side with them [this is the topic of the plenary address that Jeffrey will be giving at Leeds, so I imagine he could say more about this here, if he likes-come to think of it, wasn't his plenary at the SEMA meeting in Saint Louis on Mandeville apropos to our discussion here of the function of the East in what might be called a medieval Christian mythography--an East, moreover, that is continually "in motion"?].

Maybe I'm just balking a little at the term "scandal" and at what that implies more specifically, as a form of slander or outrageous moral stumble/mis-step, and [shameless presentist that I am], I think this is one case where I would not draw too straight a line between modern Christians' antipathy/shame toward/for the Jewish "origins" of Christianity and medieval attitudes/beliefs re: those same so-called "origins." I think some of Larry Swain's comments here are instructive on this point as well [at least, as regards "Eastern" origins of Christianity].

theswain said...


Well, as I review the discussion, I think there are two things that need distinguishing. "Eastern" origins are not the same as "Jewish" origins is one. Further, though, Medieval Christianity didn't view Christianity as originating among "the Jews" in the sense that they distinguished between "true Israelites" and "Jews", viewing the former as Christians or proto-Christians and the latter as rejectors of Christ. Especially by this later period, they would point to the destruction of Jerusalem from Josephus, recorded in Eusebius, translated by Rufinus and referred to frequently, most notably for this period in works like Peter Comestor and the like as just punishment. The relationship is complex, but the distinction between Jesus and the early church as "true Israel" and "new Israel" vs. the unbelieving Jew is an extension of Pauline theology and I think enough of a distinction to militate the "scandal" of "Jewish" origins of the faith.

Re: Bede, is there a difference? That is, Bede's influence was always primarily as a theologian, the HE has become more important to the neglect of his theological writings (being slowly but ever so surely redressed in the last 15 years) to modern scholarship. Nevertheless, people read his history and quote it fairly often, even on the continent where many late (and esp. early!) copies exist and have signs of being used heavily. So yes, he is more important to the Middle Ages as a theologian, but as an "authority" [one cited in the Glossa Ordinaria after all!] *all* his works were read and consulted.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen and Swain,

Thanks for your comments.

In re: different mapping, yes, thanks for the reminder. The Akbari in the Poco MA argues this point in some detail, and I noted the same thing this morning while reading some fascinating passages in the Polychronicon: Hidgen wonders at length at whether 'Africa' should be counted as part of Europe or not (i.e., whether the world should be divided in 2 parts or 3). I'm sure scholars of maps, race, and monstrosity have made much of these passages already, and they would be pedagogically VERY useful I think. The point, and here's what inspired my increasingly shaky argument, is that the further from the center [wherever that center is, but for Higden, it at least becomes England over the course of his history, yes?] one goes, the stranger things get. To be sure, the relationship of the "West" to the "East" (or indeed to the "South" or to its other, more generally) is complex; in fact, the Polychronicon fascinatingly maps these North, South, and Middle distinctions onto the British island, making it a microcosm of the climates and bodytypes of the entire medieval world (i.e., in this case, the Southerners mellow, Northerners belligerent, and those in the Middle just fine). Sometimes is a place of desire; sometimes it's a place--to conjure up Jeffrey--to imagine other ways of being less constrained by rigid categories of identity; sometimes it's a place to be reviled, shut up, expelled (think of the hordes behind Alexander's gate); sometimes it's a place of the holiest of people (think of the legend of Alexander and the Brahmins, which has a shocking (to me, anyway) popularity throughout the Middle Ages). Among those possibilities is embarrassment or disgust. I think, for example, of the way that some Crusade narratives tar the Byzantines as feminine, sneaky, ingenious, that is, many of the same 'insults' hurled at the Saracens. Simply being in and of the East must have opened them to this charge. What are the implications of this for Christianity itself? I don't know yet, but I don't want to shut off this avenue of exploration.

In re: relationship between Judaism and Xianity. Yes, I know it's more complex than a mere scandal. But I'm convinced that's also a part of it. I'm sure the Scheil is good; haven't read it, but I have read Jeremy Cohen's Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity and Kruger's Spectral Jew, which combined make several of the points Scheil does. And part of what energizes Cohen and Kruger's books is that Jews and Judaism were a problem (among other things!) for medieval Christian intellectuals. I'm also convinced that Anglo-Saxon, 12th-13th, and post-Conquest Insular Christian thought about Jews and Judaism all differ from one another in several important respects, although what those are I'm not yet sure. In other words, I'm sure Scheil can help me, but I think Cohen and Kruger will give me a better sense of what's going on the 14th century.

@theswain "Eastern" origins are not the same as "Jewish" origins is one.
I'm not doing my tentative argument any favors by writing "I'm *still* inclined to think that the Eastern origins of Xianity must have been a scandal for Western Xians just as the Jewish origins of Xianity were a scandal for Xians." This should be "in a manner analogous" rather than "just as." They're not the same, right. But it's possible that the attitudes towards the East and attitudes towards the Jews--present day or 'originary'--might have been put into dangerous conjunction with one another by Christian bigots. Once again, it may be that my thoughts on this will lead nowhere, but I want to keep my ears open.

Now, a bit more looking at the MLT has brought my ideas to a grinding halt: what do I make of the rhetorical questions of II.470-490, where the ML asks, in sum, 'who kept Constance safe but the God who kept 'the peple Ebrayk' safe'? I hit this and just have to throw my hands up. Like Moses I guess.

theswain said...

Ebrayk=Hebraic, and the reference is to the Exodus, crossing the Red Sea and to Galatians, Paul's reference to the Exodus' Red Sea crossing as a baptism, sometimes referred to as a "drowning of sin".

Karl Steel said...

Swain, I got that. My confusion isn't with the words. It's with the garden-variety use of the history from the Hebrew scriptures to comprehend Insular history. The, to my mind, wholly uncomplicated reference to crossing the Red Sea in MLT basically strangles my thesis in the cradle. Hence the throwing up of hands.

Suzanne Akbari said...

Karl, Thanks for starting this very interesting thread. It seems to me that what's at the heart of the discussion is the *place* of religion, represented in the MLT by the uncanny appearance of the "bretoun book." In other words, the book is a metonym for the site of holiness -- the origin of that holiness is harder to locate. In geographical terms, the place of religion can be Jerusalem, seen sometimes as the center of things, sometimes as in the orient; in ontological terms, the place of religion is always interior, always beyond (cf debates on idols and idolatry). The role of Jews and Judaism participates in the Christian imaginary in a similar way: at once central and peripheral, the source of Christian identity (as 'verus Israel') and that which must be abjected. The intersection of religion and geography in pre-modern expressions of alterity -- which you evoke very well in puzzling over the relationship between "Eastern origins" and "Jewish origins" -- has preoccupied me for a while, and I ended up patterning the book I just finished on these two vectors of alterity. Until it comes out, I wonder if you would find this old essay of mine to be useful: "Placing the Jews in Late Medieval English Literature," in Orientalism and the Jews, ed. Ivan Kalmar and Derek Penslar (2005) 32-50. (Sorry I don't have a link).

Karl Steel said...

Suzanne, thanks for your most illuminating comment. I'm looking forward very much to reading the book when it comes out; in the meanwhile, I'm having the essay shipped to me from within the CUNY system, and will give it a read this week I hope. I think I'm going to find it enormously helpful, so thanks again.

Suzanne Akbari said...

Karl, thanks for the kind words. The "Placing the Jews" article isn't on MLT (mainly on the Roman de Mahomet, Siege of Jerusalem and Mandeville), but the argument on origins and space might be helpful to a reading of MLT. The place of Celtic alterity, however, adds another dimension to medieval English ruminations on origins -- the work Jeffrey has been doing is exciting in this respect. Celtic alterity is geographically prior, while Jewish alterity is ontologically prior; so, while we could argue that Celtic culture is replaced by English culture just as Judaism is superseded by Christianity, we would have to draw a distinction between replacement and supersession. Could we think of this distinction as one of replacement (where English culture over-writes Celtic culture) versus displacement (where Ecclesia takes the place formerly inhabited by Synagoga)? Interesting to think through the implications of this distinction.

theswain said...

Oh, sorry Karl. Apologies. I return then to expand a little then on my previous comments re: Israelites vs. the Jews.

Remember that Christendom had for long seen itself as the "New Israel", replacing the old Israel, the Jews. The "Israelites" of the Christian OT were read as proto-Christians, and according to the influential Gospel of Nicodemus and the Harrowing of Hell, it is these in large part who are redeemed from Hell and escorted to heaven. Thus, if you make use of this distinction, you may still be able to make your case (though I disagree with it).

And remember too that our medieval minds not only see themselves as inheritors of Rome and Troy, but have written themselves into Biblical history as well, tracing their lineages in many cases back to Noah.

I don't know if that helps, or if you already knew all that, and if so, I apologize for stating the obvious. But I think you can still make the point.

Karl Steel said...

Interesting to think through the implications of this distinction.

Typology has always made this distinction difficult for me to figure out, since [for example, the Red Sea example above] the Xian antitype at once supersedes and pays tribute to the "Old Testament" type.

Is 14th-century English culture 'just' overwriting/erasing a Celtic insular past? It's doing that, and we see that--as Swain reminded us w/ the Council of Whitby--effort at erasure going way, way back in Insular history. But there are still gestures towards preservation running parallel (?) to this. These gestures aren't a matter of typological reference, but the invocation of the Britoun Book, or the 'Celtic' names of Franklin's Tale, are, in some way, paying tribute....I haven't quite figured out what's going on here, though. My inclination is to have a look at the Polychronicon's treatment of Wales.

Suzanne Akbari said...

Yes, it's true that the medieval English relationship to the Celtic past is more complicated than just "overwriting/erasure" or "replacement," that it involves "preservation" and maybe even memorialization, in a sense. Another complicating aspect concerning what we might call the Welsh past is that medieval English writers don't always think of it as purely insular: you see this in Chaucer, for example, where the Celtic past of the Wife of Bath's Tale is clearly insular, but the Celtic past of the Franklin's Tale is just as clearly continental (Brittany/Armorica). In other words, the "Britoun" past is a setting that is local without being insular. It's local in WBT ("this land," 859) and, implicitly, in MLT's Northumberland -- which, interestingly, is "that lond" (540), presumably because it is still pagan. Also, to get back to the insular setting, while we might tend to conflate northern and western Celtic cultures on the basis of language groups (Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Irish), the categories are clearly different in medieval texts: to stick with Chaucer, "Walys" (where you find "the Cristyanytee / Of olde Britouns" [MLT 545-6]) seems to be the well-spring of the Celtic past that the reader is directed to remember; the north is pretty irretrievably marked as pagan. I'll be curious to see what you come up with on the "Britoun" past in the Polychronicon.

Karl Steel said...

Thx for the reminder of the variety of the Celtic regions in the 'long' archipelago of Britain (Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany, etc.?). MLT does distinguish: Alla goes to war with Scotland (like Edward III when Trivet was writing the original of the tale?) while Christianity waits in Wales. What should we make of this? It seems we simultaneously have a proto-English imperialism (against Scotland) and an undermining of it (w/ Welsh Xianity and the Britoun Book).

I read your 'Placing the Jews' essay last night, and its attention to the complexity of the conflated Jewish 'Muslims'/Besieged Martyrs of the Siege of Jerusalem might go a long way towards helping me figure out (without destroying the complexity of) MLT. Thanks very much, and, by the way, for Anthropophagous Mary of Jerusalem, this book is essential. You also MUST see the version of the story in Higden/Trevisa, as it's the only one I know of, off hand, where the mother speaks to the partially eaten corpse of her son. From my notes:

So byfel þat griseliche dede, a straunge womman, þat heet Marye, was overcome wiþ honger, and spak to hir owne litel sone in þis manere: 'Myn owne sone, þu art bysette aboute wiþ al þing þat is griseliche and dreedful, wiþ bataille, wiþ hongir, wiþ fuyre brennynge, and with þeves. Quyte ones þy modir, and paye hir þat þtou hast of hir i-fonge, and torne a3en in þat prive place þat þou come of. Somtyme I dede as myldenesse wolde, doo we now as hunger counsailleþ." Þus sche seid, and rostid hir owne sone, and eet som, and kept som. Bot men þat made stryf come þider by þe smel of þe brende flesche; but þe womman stilled hem, and spak to hem in þis manere: "Beþ stille, I was nou3t coveitous and unkynde, I have y-kept 3ow 3oure parte;" and sche spak to þe part þat was i-left in þis manere: "Myn owne sone, þou art kynde to me, þou lengþest my lfy; þou seesist hem þat wolde me smyte, þey þat come to slee me, beeþ i-made now my frendes and gesten; þanne takeþ what 3e knoweþ þat þe childes modir haþ i-tasted, oþer elles I schal ete al in feere. Schame 3ow nou3t to folwe a womamn þat 3e haveþ y-made ete in þis manere." Anon þe citee was ful of þe clamour of þis griseliche dede. And Titus was so imeoved þerwiþ, þat he 3af up his hondes to heveneward and seid, "We come to a batille of men, but now I see þat we fi3teþ a3enst bestes; 3it bestes rampaunt spareþ her owne kynde, be þey nevere so nede, and helpeþ her owne children; but þese men devoureþ here owne children: þanne destroye we hem, for all hir dedes stinkeþ." (Vol IV 445-447, ed. Lumby 1872 )