The following will likely not strike ITM readers as being as interesting as it was to me, but here goes. This morning I was using Google Desktop to seek ancient lecture notes on King Lear, a play I'm teaching this spring after a lapse of at least eight years. The following draft of a hoary talk surfaced because it contains a reference to the play -- a reference excised once the draft became the plenary at a Medieval Guild conference at Columbia. Though the Auden poem grew to loom over the entire essay as it grew, Lear never reasserted himself, not in the Speculum essay that this piece eventually became, nor in the two chapters of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity for which it provided the base. Much of what is tentative below solidified; much that seems solid here vanished into air.
So, for you archaeologists of knowledge, here is a long lost child: an early draft of "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich."
In the face of trauma cultures deploy various symbolizing and sense-making technologies (especially incorporation of trauma's messiness into the well delineated contours of narrative), but trauma remains fundamentally exterior to epistemology, for it destroys signification itself. A good working definition of trauma is, therefore, the Lacanian one: an irruption of the Real, a "gaping hole" in the material of reality that menaces those order-making structures founded upon its exclusion. Trauma, in other words, is like the Storm and tempest which erupts in the midst of Shakespeare's King Lear. Two responses are possible in its wake: utter despair (Lear on the heath), or a gathering together of the broken pieces of a world and the imagining of some new community. When trauma disrupts a collective imaginary, it can also precipitate and ground a stronger sense of social cohesion, enabling the emergence of a newly experienced "we," a first person plural in which the particularities of those differences which might previously have prevented wide union can be quickly forgotten. Traumas through which affinity coalesces enable new visions of citizenship, belonging, nation.
What happens, though, when trauma fails to attain such grandeur?
"About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters." Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus is a visually overwhelming painting: gorgeous expanses of ocean, luminous hills and trees, a world alive with people and objects. The young boy with failed wings plummets to his watery death in a crowded foreground. A ship travels obliviously onwards, a farmer ploughs his fields, the sun radiates indifferent gold. Transforming Brueghel's painting into poetry, W. H. Auden observes in "Musée des Beaux Arts" that catastrophe occurs with a diurnal weariness:
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;For Breughel and for Auden, the event's sadness is its spectacular ordinariness. The ship traversing the sea into which Icarus is swallowed may have witnessed "Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky," but it "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." It is on this level that most of us experience trauma: unlooked for accidents that, even if they reconfigure our own worlds, barely register notice in our communities, catastrophes all the more difficult to bear because the pain they radiate does not travel far.
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not especially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.
The tragedy of Icarus's fall is that nothing changes in its wake, for it brings into being no community to bear lasting witness to the loss it signifies. Under what conditions, I would like to ask, might the death of a child "who did not especially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of a wood" -- a small death, a sad death, but an event almost below the notice of any but a grieving few -- how might such a death be transformed into Shakespeare's resounding Storm and tempest, a reality-reconfiguring Act, a trauma that doesn't simply destroy but has the potential in its wake to call into being new kinds of community? How might the passing of an ordinary boy become invested with the fears and hopes of a heterogeneous and divided multitude, rendering them for the first time a unity? For that is exactly what happened in Norwich in the years following 1144, when a twelve year old named William was murdered by unknown hands and his corpse abandoned in the woods. His family tried desperately to ensure that William would not, like Icarus, slip silently into oblivion, but found that their fellow citizens simply were not as moved by the crime's effects as they were. But a decade later the bones that had been resting quietly were reanimated, enfleshed through the power of a collective trauma of long duration which suddenly found a possible resolution in the sanctification of the boy's corpse. The flow of blood which emanated from St. William of Norwich, first English victim of the murderous Jews, tells an intriguing story about postcoloniality, the suturing of community, the creation of monsters, and the imagining of contemporary race in the wake of 1066.
The long history of the British Isles could accurately be described as a series of postcolonial moments: peoples who have and have not left textual histories settled the land in successive waves or in comigrations, killing off or intermarrying with previous colonizers, inscribing the landscape with funereal architectures, stone and wood ritual structures, farmsteads, towns, cities. A flow of languages, religions, cultures, genes and memes traversed the land, hybridized, disappeared or thrived. Some large consolidations are well known to history: Roman Britannia, the Mercian hegemony, King Alfred's omnivorous Wessex. By the time Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne, the southeast portions of the island had long ago become a nation, England. But even that unity was precarious, as the English, Danish and Norman co-claimants to the throne made clear at Edward's death. In some of my previous work, I have joined more contemporary-focused theorists in arguing that postcoloniality does not necessarily indicate a rupture, but might instead mark a nonprogressive temporality -- indeed, I have gone so far as to suggest that we might usefully label much of the Middle Ages "midcolonial," and stop worrying so much about beginnings and ends. Today, however, I'd like to talk about a date that continues to exude a somber, almost magical gravitas: 1066, a year so important that every student of history can recite it, "the year of the Conquest," the Battle of Hastings, a date so fateful that most literary medievalists avoid it entirely, preferring to work on one side or the other of its divide. Let me admit something: I'm so absent-minded that when I had to choose a PIN for my ATM card, rather than pick my son's birthday or something normal like that, the only number that popped into my head was 1066. Now, since I'm reminded of that fateful year several times a week, it will probably come as no surprise that I've begun to turn in my scholarly work to a consideration of the Norman conquest as colonialist trauma, and the struggles in the aftermath of 1066 to discover how a divided, multiethnic population imagined community. Because this line of thinking began for me in the constricted space of a glassed-in bank machine, it will be no surprise that the story I will tell today unfolds in the closeness of regional rather than the vastness of national space, and that it involves money-lending.
The murder of the child William in Norwich in 1144 was brutal, but in a way it arrived too early: the events surrounding his death did not inspire the same national awe awakened by little Hugh of Lincoln in the next century. A tanner's apprentice and a rather free-spirited lad in life, this "poor neglected little fellow" (as some of his fellow Norwichians labeled William) was transformed a decade after his death into a saint, into a new patron to a city which had been quite literally riven by the Conquest. "English" child with a Norman name, William offered in his sacred body a suturing point at which those differences that had formerly divided the citizens of Norwich could be transcended, calling into being a civic totality, allaying the trauma of 1066. This new harmony demanded new visions of affinity, race, community. It also demanded new monsters. And so for the first time in written history we encounter in Norwich a figure destined to become familiar throughout the western world: the murderous Jew, whose imagined lust to shed Christian blood ensured that a shared sense of Englishness could consolidate, at least temporarily, in a thriving East Anglian riverport...