Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages

by J J Cohen

I returned from New York last weekend to an ominous envelope from the ACLS.

Among my summer projects last year was applying for a variety of fellowships: the Folger, the Guggenheim, the ACLS. I've been an administrator since 2006, chairing my department and directing a Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (and for some of that time doing both at once). What I've been calling my "stone book" really ought to have been finished by now. I've never gone so long in between publishing monographs (HIMMB:ODM came out in 2006). And, I've been eager to possess the time to bring the diverse materials I've collected in the course of my rocky research into a semi-coherent whole. I received my ding letter from the Folger two weeks ago: though named an alternate for the fellowship, I know that no one in her right mind would give up the offer of a year at that library. I also know that with universities and colleges using the dire economy as an excuse to reduce the resources available to faculty, the number of applications for external support of all kinds has risen greatly. I had no great hope of receiving any funding, but I also knew I'd benefit from the chance to articulate my project as part of the application process.

As you can guess from the picture above, the dire envelope contained extraordinarily good news. I've been granted a year of fellowship support to work on "Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages." I've been numb with shock over this award, as well as profoundly grateful to those who wrote my letters of support. I feel like I've won the lottery and gone to heaven at the same time.

But I also know that in academia, all good news comes at a price to friends. This lesson was driven home to me when I was on the job market: every writing sample request or interview someone receives also indicates that someone else, no doubt someone they know and like, did not receive the request or call. Positions are scarce enough and the field small enough that even though we tell ourselves we're not competing for the scant resources, of course we are, and we're often being judged in ways that make hair splitting seem a capacious art. I wrote six ACLS letters for friends this year, at every level of the competition; no one I know received the "good" envelope. My FB update about the award was the means through which a former student (for whom I'd written a letter) and a pal figured out that they didn't get the fellowship. It is difficult not to feel guilty about such success when good news is also disappointment, especially because so many worthy projects are submitted to these competitions. Meanwhile Republicans scheme to abolish the meager humanities funds available in the US through agencies like the NEH and NEA. I'm not sure what else to say on this topic other than this year emphasized for me again something that needs no further proof: on the one hand institutions praise research, while on the other they offer insufficient support for such endeavors. Meanwhile our societal priorities when it comes to new knowledge in the humanities and arts seem stuck in the rut they've been at least since Carolyn Dinshaw was calling them out in Getting Medieval (which contains a still relevant read of the last Republican attempt to abolish NEH/NEA funding).

Below is my ACLS application. I offer it because I'd very much like your feedback: now that I have at least a year to work on the project, it's time to think about how to organize the beast. But I also know that reading other scholars' grant and fellowship applications has also been instrumental to my own success (they are, after all, a genre, and a genre is learnable), and I've always been grateful to those who've shared their successful applications with me.

Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages 
Jeffrey J. Cohen

Writing at the close of the twelfth century, the historian William of Newburgh recognized the invitation that prehistoric structures extend to distant futures. In his History of English Affairs (c.1196), William writes of a nocturnal traveler returning to his Yorkshire home, a little drunk. He passes an ancient burial mound and sees its door suddenly open, feast and firelight beyond. When asked by one of the celebrants to join their meal, the fearful traveler steals a goblet and runs. He never learns the story of what was being honored within the chamber, never discovers the history of those who built the place and seem to dwell within still. As writers like William realized eight centuries ago, unsettling narrative is the gift of encounter with ancient stone architectures. When we respond to the invitation they offer, we hear stories that, if we are willing to listen, challenge us to dream the contours of our own world more capaciously.

Stories of Stone examines human responses to two forms of lithic encounter in the Middle Ages: stone as a primordial natural substance; and stone as a seemingly timeless element in architectures that have long outlived their builders. Stone invited medieval writers to think innovatively about time, materiality, the power of art and the endurance of history. My project investigates a series of interrelated questions: How did the cultures of early England understand and interpret time capsules like megalithic circles, fossils, and prehistoric burial mounds? Can the distant past communicate in a language of its own? Or can it be heard only as translated into a contemporary interpretive frame, such as a religious discourse structured around the biblical story of Noah and the Flood? What do we makes of stories like those of Caesura, supposed granddaughter of Noah, who attempted to escape the Deluge by fleeing to Ireland, inscribing her testament on its rocks? Can structures like Stonehenge or stories like those of the prophet Merlin - - who ended his life entombed in stone – convey meaning across inhuman spans of time? Can lithic architectures bequeath readable, nonverbal history to a distant future? Why are narratives of communication across vast expanses of time so often told in and through rock, an element that in the Middle Ages seems so protean, so active that it functions like an inorganic organism? How does stone enmesh itself so profoundly in human desires, especially for stories that might endure epochs rather than mere years?

Stonehenge, for example, possesses so strong a gravitational force that 950,000 visitors arrive yearly on Salisbury Plain. Few human-built constructions possess a history so continuous as this gift from Neolithic times, from cultures unable to send linguistic messages to their far-off future. The first illustration we possess of Stonehenge is from a medieval manuscript detailing Britain’s pre-English history (Wace’s Roman de Brut, Egerton 3028, c.1325). Merlin is depicted constructing the ring of stones with the assistance of African giants. A later manuscript illustration (Scala Mundi, c. 1440) provides a bird’s eye view of Stonehenge’s trilithons, the iconic double pillars capped by lintels. Such a vantage point was nearly impossible in the Middle Ages, but here we behold a kind of x-ray view from above, with tenon joints in the rocks clearly visible, revealing that the illustrator knew the circle to be a remarkable work of human engineering. The text accompanying the picture notes that Merlin built the structure “not by force, but by art.” Though we tend now to think of this figure familiar from Arthurian myth as a magician, Merlin was in the Middle Ages an artist, an architect, and an author. Merlin ensures that the stories of his time survive by constructing in Stonehenge an everlasting memorial to the British dead. This medieval story about the origins of the structure is not mere misapprehension. The Merlin narrative demonstrates a contemporary responsiveness to what this lithic communication device can impart. Whether Stonehenge is described as a feat of magic or of engineering, its beholders have long recognized the power of enchantment its stones exert, inseparable from the incitement to narrative they harbor. Prehistoric architectures offered the Middle Ages not simply a glimpse of a lost and mysterious past, but a provocation to creativity, narrative, and innovation. Stonehenge conveys and elicits story.

My project insists that medieval writers accepted (sometimes with joy, often with trepidation) the invitation that primordial stone extends. In rock they beheld matter from creation’s dawn. In prehistoric objects and architectures they glimpsed remnants of a time quite literally antediluvian, or stories of nearly lost worlds. In the latter case these narratives involved vanished peoples of the island (Romans, Normans, Picts), or living peoples consigned to England’s supposedly surpassed history (Jews, the Welsh, the Irish). Stone was not an inert or uncommunicative substance. Rock and gems offered what Jane Bennett has called vibrant matter, a materiality possessed of agency that can actively collaborate with humans, shaping and reshaping worlds. Unlike other elements, however, stone also insistently poses the problem of thinking beyond merely human temporal frames. Because it endures far longer than any culture or language, stone offers an unceasing call to imagine centuries and millennia instead of years, to contemplate how the prehistoric might touch the medieval. Writers in the Middle Ages were therefore just as entranced by lithic architectures as modern pilgrims to Stonehenge and Avebury. They told similarly beautiful stories about these places as a way of communicating with the stories stones shelter and convey.

My research examines the intersection of the material with the textual. I look, for example, at why the fossil of an ichthyosaurus was worked into the porch floor of the Norman church of St John the Baptist in Tredington; what Augustine of Hippo made of the mammoth’s tooth he found while beachcombing in Utica; why Stonehenge in the Middle Ages is associated with African giants, memorialization, and Merlin. I argue that dreaming “deep time” enabled medieval authors to imagine their own world differently, and thereby to imagine a future that did not merely replicate the present. The range of texts I use is large, but centers for coherence upon works composed in England between 1100-1400. Among the narratives explored in depth are Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale,” a cogent meditation upon the commemorative powers of archaic stone; Marie de France’s lais, where the entrance to the world of the imagination is through ancient rock; William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, an attempt at comprehensive English history that is haunted by aboriginal peoples and their storied architectures; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Green Knight’s chapel seems to be a Neolithic tomb; the scientific accounts of the properties of gems known as lapidaries, which grant stones astounding agency and make rocks the heroes of small epics; the Travels of John Mandeville, a work so enamored of stone that it gives diamonds the power of sexual reproduction; and the Jews in medieval anti-Semitic narratives, who are figured as archaic survivals into Christian modernity. A rhetoric of stone surrounds Jewish representation, but underneath this petrifying depiction dwells a deeper one, in which stories of Christian-Jewish cohabitation, neighboring, and mutual regard can be excavated and – like medieval stone itself – brought to vibrant life. My book’s conclusion will argue against an easy separation of the medieval and the early modern periods, detailing how stories of stone fascinated the early modern writers John Leland, William Camden, John Stow and Georgius Agricola.

A portion of my archival and critical labor has already been accomplished, and I have visited several of the sites about which I write. A year of funding would allow me to complete my manuscript work at the British Library in London (which possesses an illustrated chronicle of Britain’s prehistory central to my project [Egerton 3028] as well as the version of Mandeville’s Travels my book examines, with copious architectural and geological illustrations [Royal 17 C. xxxvii]). My concluding chapter, on the continuity of stories of stone into the Renaissance, requires my use of the Folger Shakespeare Library here in DC. Since the existence of an abiding sense of place is central to my book, I would visit the sites I have not yet been able to reach: Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills, inspiration to the builders of Stonehenge; Lud’s Church, an ancient worship site which likely figures in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and some of the Yorkshire long barrows. I would also like to return to Stonehenge in the company of archeologist Geoffrey Wainwright (English Heritage), whose rethinking of the purpose of the site has been foundational to my own work. Finally, I would examine the recently mounted exhibit on Seahenge at the Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn to compose my book’s introduction, since this structure spurred a
modern controversy over preservation, identity and community across time with uncanny parallels to the work I am undertaking on medieval sources.

My remaining archival work and on site research can be accomplished within five months, between June and October 2011. During the month of August I will travel to Australia, where I have agreed to present my research in progress at a “collaboratory” on the History of Emotions sponsored by the University of Melbourne. At this event I will have the chance to work with scholars who have thought about stone, affect and history within the context of Aboriginal art. The month of November into late December will be spent at the Folger Library, researching the materials for the book’s concluding section. From January 2012 to the end of my funded year, I will complete the process of working my materials into monograph form. Many of the book’s chapters exist in outline, as previously delivered conference keynotes, or in the form of essays. With the release from teaching and administration that the fellowship would grant me, I will be able to complete the project by August 2012, bringing to publication the most ambitious and creative undertaking of my scholarly career.

Medieval and Early Modern Texts
Agricola, Georg. De Natura Fossilium [On the Nature of Fossils, 1546]
Albertus Magnus, De mineralibus [Book of Minerals, early 13th C]
Augustine of Hippo, De Civitate Dei [The City of God, 5th C]
The Book of John Mandeville [mid 14th C; I will use French and English versions] Camden, William. Britannia [1607/1610]
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Franklin’s Tale, The Prioress’s Tale, The Knights Tale [late 14th C]
Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica [Conquest of Ireland, late 12th C]
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [late 14th C]
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136]
Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum [History of the English, 13th C]
Marbode of Rennes, De Lapidibus [On Stones, 11th C.]
Marie de France, Lais [mid 12th C]
Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora [13th C]
Stow, John. A Survey of London [1603]
Suite du Merlin [c. 1240]
Theophrastus, De Lapidibus [On Stones, 4th C BC]
Wace, Le Roman de Brut [A History of the British, 1155]
William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum [The History of the English Kings, 12th C]
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum [The History of English Affairs, c. 1196]
Secondary Sources
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenemenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)
Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009)
Bale, Anthony. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Burl, Aubrey. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)
Caillois, Roger. The Writing of Stones (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985)
De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Serve Editions, 2000)
Giffney, Noreen, and Myra J. Hird, eds. Queering the Non/Human (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008)
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
Hanawalt, Barbara A. and Lisa J. Kiser, eds. Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008)
Harris, Jonathan Gil. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)
Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press)
Higgins, Iain Macleod. Writing East: The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)
Kardulias, P. Nick, and Richard W. Yerkes, eds. Written in Stone: The Multiple Dimensions of Lithic Analysis, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003)
Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)
Morton, Timothy. “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125.2 (2010) 273-82
Rudwick, Martin J. S. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Sallis, John. Stone (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994)
Siewers, Alfred K. Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Sobin, Gustaf. Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
Tilley, Christopher. The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (Oxford: Berg, 2004)


Liza Blake said...

going into the Renaissance? Let's talk -- I have some sources (many of which come from the Spenser work ...).

irina said...

Ah, survivor's guilt. The cherry on top of academic accomplishment/good fortune.

Mazel tov, Jeffrey. I know you'll enjoy and be incredibly productive during the year, but think also that you *will* benefit other medievalists through this work. Fellowship applications seem like a zero-sum game, and they mostly are, but I also tend to think that every scholar adjacent to me in location, institution, field, methodology, interest, etc. who gets a fellowship makes it a little bit easier for me to get one too, or just for me to do my own work.

I love that you share the winning proposal -- just reading the first paragraph inspires me to write more the way I want to, and not just in "proposal-speak."

Karl Steel said...

Wow! Congrats. And I second what Irina said.

I know you've read this, so I just want to remind you of Tim Morton's discussion of the relative ease of thinking infinity versus thinking enormous numbers (The Ecological Thought).

Medievals thought the infinite as a matter of (doctrinal) habit, whether they were thinking of grace, of the stillness of eternity, or of God himself. They thought of numbers larger than themselves too, as we see in any number of chronicles (whose records cover the millennia since the protoplasts), or in cosmology, or geographical musings on the antipodes. These thoughts nonetheless tend to preserve humans at the center of things: numbers are large because they exceed the measure humans expect. Even in modern thought, we still hear that the sun is 'very far away,' though in cosmological terms, it's quite close; I imagine we can find similar language in any number of medieval texts.

One of the many things I like about your project is its effort to discover where humans thought time and number nonanthropocentrically. What is the time of a diamond for Mandeville (or Odoric: his source? dunno)? Surely this time is FAR harder to think than eternity, or even the bounded time of the world that--contra Aristotle's arguments for an eternally existing earth--emerged only days before humans did.

Eileen Joy said...

Congratulations! The proposal is beautiful, and it's very generous of you to share it. Especially interesting to me is to see how your interest in the lithic also converges with your work on Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Liza, Spenser: yes, let's talk. Because we never talk, the two of us.

Irina, that's a great way of phrasing things. And I do believe it's important to avoid proposal speak as much as possible: meaning that proposals are a genre that can be mastered, but it is important not to compose a generic proposal.

Karl, one of the tensions you're picking up on beautifully is between what "medievals thought" where the the "medievals" are the intellectuals who use theology, cosmography, encyclopediae to ponder how time and eternity and history work; and "medievals" as artists (these may well be the same people, at less systematic moments) from whose work a different, less coherent, and potentially more innovative temporality emerges. I'm trying to map an emergent secular and creative notion of time, monument, history, futurity.

Eileen, the Jewish work is intimately related to the stone work -- in fact the concluding section attempts to trace a geology of medieval anti-Semitism.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I don't think I can offer any help with the actual work (save, perhaps, jokes in the BL café) but I hope someone can as, after reading the proposal, I feel that this would be one of the more interesting things I could read and am quite keen to do so. Congratulations, both on the fellowship and on piercing my postivist reactor shielding!

Anne said...

heartiest congratulations! i fervently hope that you can make it to Brittany at some point where, beyond Carnac, there are tremendous and incredibly beautiful neolithic megalith arrangements. one site, Montneuf, bears the marks of a "medieval takedown" - around the year 1000, 400+ 10'-15' stones were taken down (they left 3 standing). the buried 400+ stones were only found after a forest fire in 1987. the argument is that there were still rites being carried out before the stones, prompting the Church's takedown. and if you need a guide.... :-)