Friday, January 27, 2017

#Kzoo2017 Preview: Rogue Workshop and an Invitation

Dearest ITM Readers:

The draft program for #Kzoo17 (International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI) is now online. Check it out!

As you start to plan out your conference schedule, note this event not listed on the official program:
Whiteness in Medieval Studies: a rogue workshop on racial politics that will explore how medievalists in all areas of study can be effective allies for diversity and inclusion within our institutions and across our field. Saturday, May 13th, 6-7:30pm, Fetzer 1005. UPDATE: NEW VENUE: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS) Business Meeting and Reception, Saturday, May 13, with this conversation starting at 5:45pm in Fetzer 1045. [more updates here]
And also an invitation:
If you're a person of color (i.e., racial or ethnic minority) working in medieval studies and you'd like to be added to a listserv of Medievalists of Color (MOCs), please contact the current list administrator Jonathan Hsy: jhsy [at] gwu [dot] edu.
This message is posted on behalf of an open fellowship of medievalists of color.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nothing to Lose: Medieval Castration, Part II


And here's the sequel to yesterday. Again, I am so struck by the weirdness of medieval texts, which so rarely, when we get down to details, offer up the dreadful homogeneity that the Right imputes to its fantasy of "European origins." Even doctrinal texts enweird, because they take their questions so very seriously. Nothing goes without saying, and no one would ever bat away a limit case as irrelevant.

This is a draft: I'm sharing it with a writing group in...10 minutes or so, and then workshopping it further at CUNY on Feb 10th, and then getting it off my hands, although I have a glimmer of something more ambitious planned for it. Comments are welcome!

Entering Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; BnF fr. 1544, 105r

Circumvention needs to be sought elsewhere, through the path of indifference. It is with this in mind that I turn to two additional stories of genital injury, one of an outlier in relation to the discourse I described, and the other that might be called a non-phallic castration, a version of the injury that disassociates it from the law, sacrifice, and fantasies of bodily wholeness. The first comes from Henry of Saltry’s late twelfth-century Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. It was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages--including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions -- the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential physical journey through a place of torment taken by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before being returned to this world.[1] Though scholars and indeed many of the work’s medieval adapters have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[2] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard in a kind of long con. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[3] Nothing more is said of the girl. The only real surprise here is the praise for auto-castration distributed widely through a culture that officially denounced it.

A few decades after Henry of Saltry wrote his work, Peter of Cornwall produced his Book of Revelations, and with it, a story of genital injury whose moral and narrative incoherence frees it from the overwhelming significance typically granted castration by medieval and modern culture both. The Book of Revelations comprises more than a 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, nearly all drawn from the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. His is a conservative work, with no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, while its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don't, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material. Peter of Cornwall's general introduction has him claim only to want to confound those who believe the world is ruled "a casu" [75; by chance] and to prove that we possess immortal spirits, as a spirit that dies with the body is indistinguishable from that of "iumentorum omniumque brutorum animalium" [82-83; all beasts and the brute animals].

Above all, Peter intends to prove that the afterlife exists. For these among other reasons, his version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory stands out, because it satisfies neither this nor any of his work's stated needs. Though he locates this story in Purgatory, and includes it amid a crowd of pious, cautionary tales, it ultimately refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular, and it likewise ultimately fails to prove anything about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world. The story proper runs as follows: a knight enters a large and beautiful hall, and is shortly thereafter greeted by its master, a certain King Gulinus and his retinue, who enter to wild applause, “as if” returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[4] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. In the bed Gulinus had prepared, she and the knight are about to have sex, when he discovers himself instead embracing a “truncum vetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem” [most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk], and his penis—now become a twig—trapped tight in a knot in what had been her body. A servant compounds his misery by hammering away at the knight’s penis for hours on end, simultaneously shredding it and wedging it further into the knot. The Latin here is richly ambiguous: “uirilem uirgam” can mean penis, or, literally, the “male twig”; “truncam” means either a tree trunk or a torso; and, as its modern editors emphasize, the minister who bangs on the knight does so “uiriliter” [like a man]. Gulinus then asks his servants to bring him his “son-in-law [gener].” Gulinus inquires after his well-being, and, when the knight complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers is no better: there, trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few "emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind."

Elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally. A secular man visits a site in Ireland and physically travels through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinarily pain and suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret"[5] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[6] But there are stark differences even here: unlike Peter's story, Gerald promises that any who undergo this suffering will be relieved from any further infernal punishment. No such reward awaits Peter’s unfortunate knight. Finally, the rocky walls of Purgatory hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy, since an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so "thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now."[7] But the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments: these indispensable elements of nearly any other Patrick’s Purgatory story are all missing.

Most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter, as this is where the usual significance of otherworldly torment and genital injury simply fails to apply. The king and daughter are somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[8] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[9] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[10] But Peter of Cornwall's log lady moves in the opposite direction, from beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and finally to hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[11]

For the purposes of this chapter, I am most interested in what happens to the knight's genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[12] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it in in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval textuality more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight's first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for him, as this castration does not work as castration, culturally speaking, because it has lacks the usual frames of sacrifice or punishment. Since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[13] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. Most tellingly, the genital injury happens first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking precedence, except that one – the final one, which is the game, hurts more than the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory. You can’t swing a human-cow hybrid without hitting yet another medieval story of strange bodily transformations and outrageous suffering.[14] What is rare is this framework that promises meaning -- again, in the context of nearly a thousand other, straightforward otherworld visions -- that then disappoints so radically.

In the context of Peter of Cornwall’s larger project, the story makes even less sense. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Though we might collect still other analogues, it remains difficult to comprehend what we were supposed to take away from this story. In this very material otherworld, all there is pain and the transgression of the limits of the body. It would be far easier to work with were it not called a Purgatory and not meant for a purpose to which it is so poorly suited.

The story likely ended up in Peter’s collection because of the grotesque transformations the knight undergoes, because this is what happens in hell. Bodies in heaven tend to be stable. Though some Christian commentators imagine the souls of the blessed as sparks or perfect glowing spheres,[15] or as transparent, without secrets—as they are in the Old English “Christ III” and Blickling Homily 10, or, later in the Middle Ages, Thomas of Cantimpré’s life of Margaret of Ypres[16]—though they are often imagined as being able to fly, or to communicate without speaking, they all still realize the fantasy of bodily integrity. But the damned tend to preserve only enough of themselves to be recognizable as suffering. Mostly they are treated like meat: run through with forks, boiled in cauldrons, swallowed in the hellmouth. In the Carolingian vision of Fulrad, the damned are:
Nam nunc in uno nunc in alio latere vertebatur, nunc supinus nunc prostratus, nunc erectus nunc contractus, nunc sedes nunc iterum iacens, more columbri potius quam hominis anxiando volvebatur
now turned around on this or that flank, now lying face up or face down, now upright, now compressed, now sitting, now lying down again, in anguish, twisting about one another more in the manner of snakes than humans.[17]
Another of Peter of Cornwall’s unique visions has his own grandfather escape an infernal house by scrambling up a set of earthenware jars, which close over his hands, “like pursestrings,” but which he uses later as shields when a crowd of demons pelt him with wood and fire. Though this episode ends with a claim that the visionary explained “all the things that he had seen,”[18] Peter notably omits that explanation, because the strangeness itself may be the point.

Typical methods of meaning-making fail here. We ought not to push too hard to resolve this problem. Nor should we propose that the meaninglessness itself has some greater meaning, which is to say, we ought to avoid the temptation of apophasis, that mystical method of refusing to pin down the presumptively infinite, ungraspable qualities of God—or a text. This elevates meaninglessness into its own master code, and, in the case of Peter of Cornwall’s story, does so with an account of extraordinary suffering.

The main line of the medieval castration discourse presents it as assault on manhood or familial reproduction and all supposed to go with these qualities. A subset of this discourse offers up the gift of castration as purification, an exchange of the genitals for surer participation in the regime of the phallus. The main line of the Saint Peter’s Purgatory tradition belongs to this tradition, though it oddly deviates even from nearly contemporary canon law in offering up auto-castration as admirable behavior for a cleric.[19] But in Peter of Cornwall’s Purgatory tradition, genital injury is just something that happens, the injury that welcomes him into torment, but which otherwise concludes nothing. Our knight probably should not have slept with Gulinus’s daughter, but that may be all we can take from it. Peter provides this story in a seemingly meaningful framework, among a host typical monastic stories of punishment, reward, and spiritual vision, but this episode, alone among both Peter’s collection and the larger purgatorial tradition, refuses the straightforward sense that is otherwise so typical of these kinds of stories.

This senselessness finally suggests a way to refuse to grant castration the importance that it typically demands, which is to say, a story of suffering without redemption of admonition suggests a way to refuse to treat the penis as a phallus. I offer Anna Kłosowska's analysis of the Mater Dolorosa at the foot of the cross, who experiences "suffering without transcendence," because her pain, unlike her son's, solves nothing, cures nothing, redeems nothing.[20] Kłosowska here prefers the mother to the Christ. Maggie Nelson's Art of Cruelty, which argues against the supposed “relationship between injury and fact, clarity and cruelty,” against the notion that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction, that they require violence to shock us out of our complacency.[21] Without denying the bizarre hilarity of what the knight undergoes, we can think with Kłoswoska and Nelson to propose that the very meaninglessness of the knight's suffering should be preserved as meaningless, and that the best response to his pain may be to refuse to interpret it, and thereby to refuse it the dignity of a sacrifice. He is exchanging nothing for his body. Since all he gets in return is pain, from a obscene father-in-law who never suggests that what he commands is anything but a mean joke, sympathy rather than honor might be the better mood. Though we might trace more and more possibilities of meaning, through increasingly acute psychoanalytic, folkloric, and doctrinal contextualization and analysis, perhaps we ought not to, or at least ought not to with an eye towards resolution: an explanation can often have the force of a theodicy, an attempt to justify suffering according to some master code.

Of course, we can do no good for the knight himself. This is all imaginary. It would probably be foolish to label what I am proposing here as a kind of ethical relationship to this pain. But I do think that Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory offers a chance to critics to rethink the relationship between, on the one hand, narrative pain and peril, and, on the other, the production of meaning. After all, making meaning can seem to align us with the agents of juridical violence and their attempts to confirm the law, and extrajudicial sovereignty, by writing it on the body. There may be some value in asserting that sometimes a castration is just a castration, without the burden or meanings, and protections, insisted upon by either Freudian or monastic anxiety.

[1] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[2] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[3] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[4] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013), 136–37.

[5] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[6] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[7] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[8] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[9] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[10] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[11] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Murray, “Male Embodiment,” 13–14.

[12] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[13] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

[14] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 73–74.

[15] Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 51.

[16] Jackie A. Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling, “Before and After Theory: Seeing through the Body in Early Medieval England,” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (2010): 349–51; Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives, trans. Barbara Newman (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 205.

[17] Karl Hempe, ed., “Eine ungedruckte Vision aus karolingischer Zeit,” Neues Archiv 22 (1897): 629.

[18] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, 209, 211.

[19] See the discussion of discusses Ivo of Chartres (Decretum, PL 161:523D-524A, and Panormia, PL 161:1143C) in  Murphy, “Problem of Being a Eunuch,” 168.69.

[20] Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 35.

[21] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 95.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Take it and Leave It: Medieval Castration, Part I


Here's an old-fashioned blog post, a bit of an essay - the first half of a chapter for, of all things, an anthology largely focused on classical studies - but one that I can frame as also newly crucial in these awful times for America. Stories that enweird the Middle Ages, rendering it unsuitable for White Supremacist and Christian Dominionist nostalgia; stories that enweird masculinity: that's what I'm doing below, and although it's not as direct an action even as simply phoning one's representative - which I trust all of you in America are doing - it still might count for something.

BnF, fr. 174 57v, Marriage of Adam and Eve
The seventh-century Visigothic Code called for sodomites to be castrated.[1] Norman nobles were infamous for inflicting this outrage on their noble prisoners, instead of granting them the expected, civilized quietus of execution.[2] Abelard famously suffered the same treatment when he ran afoul of Heloise’s uncle. It numbers among the civic punishments luridly illustrated in the bas-de-page of a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Coutemes de Toulouse.[3] And the surprisingly few medieval fabliaux that feature castration treat it as a grotesque joke: “Le prestre ki perdi les colles” [The Priest who loses his Balls] ends with “two dogs fighting over the roasted testicles in the ruins of the blacksmith's shop.”[4]
This is all, I trust, distressing, but none of it is particularly surprising, especially if we approach these cases, as is almost inevitable, under the influence of psychoanalytic storytelling.[5] Psychoanalytic models typically understand castration anxiety as the psychic origin of gender hierarchy and, by extension, idealizations of social dominance in general. When the male-identified child is taught that his mother has no phallus, he fears losing his too; bullied by this fear out of his claim to the mother, he invests the father with the phallus and imagines that he has let the child keep his own, lesser one, so long as he allies himself with this paternal tyrant against socially "castrated" women. With this, the child's primary family relationship shifts from one of care (between child and mother) to one of submission and obedience (between child and father). The child’s reward is being installed advantageously within prevailing social hierarchies. There is no need to take this narrative literally to recognize its operations across a host of relations in which castration, or symbolically analogous harms, become, as they are in my first paragraph, the sign of the ultimate humiliation, and its threat and practice what bonds dominant groups.[6]
Standard scholarly approaches to castration have therefore followed Jean de Meun in believing that its result is to rob someone “not just of his testicles” but “of the boldness in human ways that should exist in valiant men.”[7] Particularly with Abelard, they have tended to examine how castrates sought to reconstruct themselves as men despite the injury.[8] That “despite” is the problem: any approach to castration that preserves the supposedly natural fit between genitalia and gender is as prone to stumble as any other culturally specific “natural fit” when it encounters alien cultural material. For at least with the celibate Christian clergy of the Middle Ages, the promotion of chastity and bodily mortification meant that the possession of the male genitalia, not their loss, was the dilemma.[9] To be sure, this clergy did not seek castration, psychoanalytically speaking; they still wanted all the illusions of mastery necessary for the masculine theater of power. But they could participate in this power through gaining what we might call a “higher” phallus by losing the one below. If acquiring castration anxiety means giving up on one’s desire (for the mother, and so on) in exchange for two things—a phallus and social identity borrowed from the father, and a shifting set of always inadequate substitutes for a lost primary object—then clerical castration desire just follows this logic out to its end by giving up entirely on the false consolations of every faulty object. Excepting, of course, only the supposedly less faulty object of masculinity itself. Abelard drew on this very notion to make sense of his injury. To counter his contemporaries’ jokes—in 1118, Roscelin of Compiègne mocked Abelard as an “imperfecti hominis” (imperfect man), no longer deserving to be called “Petrus,” because of the name’s masculine grammatical ending, and as having two heads “unum viri, alterum mulieris” (one a man’s, and the other a woman’s)[10]—Abelard reframed his castration as a “just judgment” and “an act of divine mercy” that “me…mundavit potius quam privavit” (cleansed rather than deprived me).[11] Here, Abelard preserve his masculinity not despite but because of his castration. He has been purified, rendered coherent, and, we might imagine, been granted an immunity to any further castration, for, as Bonnie Wheeler observes, “this lack…makes the castrated Abelard whole.”[12] Roscelin and the other bullies simply did not understand the gift Abelard has been given. They mistook the mere penis for a phallus. At least here Abelard had come to know better.
My chapter explores this peculiar strain of medieval castration thinking, summed up by Jacqueline Murray – the leading scholar on the topic – with “the whole problem of the body was perceived to be located in the male genitals. Once they were removed, it was believed that the problem of lack of control of the flesh would simply disappear.”[13] This, however, is not the only story it will tell. Its second half considers an account of a tortured knight from Peter of Cornwall's Book of Revelations. The knight's nonsacrificial, meaningless genital injury, in which he gives up nothing and learns nothing, offers a route past the cultural significance of the phallus, preserved in both castration and penis anxiety, and ultimately past the outsized cultural significance which dominant social orders bestow on male pain. For the solution to the problem of the phallus is to lose it entirely.
The problem of the genitals is a problem of being stuck with the embarrassing insistence of a desire that is neither our own nor quite not our own. The problem of desire, in short, inflicted upon us by the Fall, which meant that Eden offers a site for imagining our lost, mythical coherence. As with so much else in medieval thought, Augustine provides. Given his commitment to combating the quite literal demonization of the flesh by dualist heresies, Augustine had to argue that Adam and Eve could have had sinless sex, which required trying to imagine how we might have done it before sexual desire undignified us. Tellingly, his solution concentrates only on Adam's penis. Adam once would have been able move it "without lust,”[14] just as we can move our feet and hands by our own will. Augustine heaps up evidence to prove that such a thing could have been possible: even in this frustrating fallen world, where none can “live as he wishes,”[15] some people can wiggle their ears, some farters can “produce the effect of singing,” and one, at least, is a “man accustomed to sweat whenever he wished.”[16] Augustine seeks succor for what the apostle Paul complained of in Romans 7:23 as “another law in my members,” or what Freud called the “it,” in his famous promise to his patients “wo Es war, soll Ich werden.” All demonstrate that we could have once had the “ich,” in an Eden of deliberate farters, sweaters, and willed erections, in which no member would have been shameful, in which no part of us would have been a rebellious “slave,”[17] when we would not have needed mastery, because there would have been perfect consonance between the self and its obedience, so that mastery and the self were one.
GKS 1633 4º, 8v. The Beaver gives the Hunter what it wants.
Absent a return to Paradise, castration seems a straightforward solution to this world’s siren song. Effectively, the goal would be to become human beavers, the animal most famous in the Middle Ages for its neat solution to the problem of desire. Knowing that hunters wanted nothing from them but their testicles, beavers – castores in Latin – would bite them off, fling them in the face of their pursuers, and then scurry away with at least their life intact. The moralized natural history catalogs that flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries tended to explain that the hunter represents the devil, testicles the vices, and the beaver the holy man, who, to become fully himself, needed only to lose the organ that drew the devil on.[18] It is therefore unsurprising, if perhaps still somewhat shocking, that two sixteenth-century Italian humanists, Paolo Giovio and Giovanni Bernardino, used self-castrating beavers as their personal emblems.[19] Here we have the fantasy of mastery divested of the unbalancing perturbations of desire, excepting, again, only the indispensable desire for masculine perfection.
The beaver shows how at least the sexual perturbations might be cured; castration shows this desire as demonstrably resolved, because the absence of the male genitalia is evident to anyone who cares to check; and finally, castration retroactively presents the problem as having been solvable. That is, castration takes something away while also furnishing the myth that the genitalia really were to blame for desire’s disordering. For in losing the genitalia the castrate lost what Gerald of Wales called a “shameful part of the body.”[20] This can be taken further, for if the male genitalia are shameful, there to be mastered, then they must be recognized as the most female part of the male body. This only apparently paradoxical point is obvious once we recall the truism that medieval misogyny, namely, that the female body is disordered desire incarnated; in an example that here stands for the whole of this tradition, Osbert of Clare hectored the nun Ida of Barking with the following, “conquer the woman; conquer the flesh; conquer desire.”[21] Furthermore, sexuality, with whatever partner, could effeminize men; another example from the same century, an anonymous twelfth-century Christian commentator on Leviticus 22:24, who observes that animals with damaged or missing testicles symbolize those who are “effeminantur” not by the loss of their genitals, but rather by “turpitudinis.”[22] Given all this, for the celibate cleric, and for their imitators, castration can masculate. It becomes one of the surest routes to bestowing on men the illusory gift of the phallus, male power’s mythical thing, which should never be confused with the actual, always inadequate genitalia.
Origen in the Roman de la Rose, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 195 122v
But getting the phallus means submitting to the phallus. Recognizing this explains the last, peculiar aspect of this peculiar clerical desire for castration, namely, that castration was desired and forbidden all at once. Castration would have seemed to have had Christ’s own blessing: in Matthew 19:12, Jesus explains “sunt enim eunuchi, qui de matris utero sic nati sunt: et sunt eunuchi, qui facti sunt ab hominibus: et sunt eunuchi, qui seipsos castraverunt propter regnum caelorum. Qui potest capere capiat” [For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it]. The original context of this sentiment, which appears only in Matthew, concerns the eschatological hopes of early followers of Jesus, and constitute an argument with contemporary rabbinic texts; the “eunuch” represents those who deliberately choose childlessness, because they know the world will soon be ending.[23] This radical hope would be lost with the verse’s first audience, but the verse itself would persist, circulating through the Latin Middle Ages uncensored and unemended, with only minimal differences between the Vulgate and other Latin translations, like the use of the synonyms “spandones” instead of “eunuchi” and “eunucizaverunt” instead of “castraverunt.”[24] What became mainstream Christians had other ways of neglecting or deflecting it.[25] The fourth century saw a new enthusiasm among Christians for the mortification of the flesh and, with it, a brief fashion for auto-castration. In response, Basil of Ancyra condemned it as a “perversion” that stirred up rather than quelled desire; the twenty canons of the First Council of Nicea lead off by prohibiting it; and exegetes threw up an interpretative cordon sanitaire around Matthew 19:12, which until then had received virtually no attention. Eusebius’s History of the Church (before 324) looks back a century to the theologian Origen’s auto-castration, mainly to sneer at it as an “absurdly literal” interpretation of Jesus’s words.[26] Some three centuries later, Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies derives the word castus, chaste, from castratio, and then further overwrites any Christian history of castration by insisting that since the “veteribus” (ancients), castus means only anyone “who would promise perpetual abstinence from sexual intercourse.” With Matthew 19:12 tamed through a “spiritual” interpretation, mainstream, male-identified Christians had to find other methods to master themselves, and had to do so within the context of a “promise,” an institutional setting of oaths of submission to the authority of another. In the twelfth century, the English hermit Godric thus sought to tame his sexual desires by throwing himself repeatedly into brier patches. For all his efforts, still troubled, he sought numbness by lowering himself into a basin of icy water that he, like his contemporary Aelred of Rievaulx, had installed in the floor of his cell.[27] In all this, castration could be desired; it could be an ideal; it could be praised by Jesus himself; but no one could act on it himself, because the phallus itself still belonged to God.
The narrative result of this clerical double consciousness is predictable: a set of castration miracles in which God himself, or some other miraculous agent, provides some lucky cleric with the grace of castration or its equivalent. On the one hand, Guibert of Nogent’s twelfth-century memoirs provide one of several versions of a story of a Santiago de Compestella pilgrim overwhelmed with self-loathing because of his irrepressible sexual desire. Prompted by a demon in angelic garb, the pilgrim first castrates and then kills himself. Soon thereafter, he is miraculously resurrected, his wounds turned into mere scars, but, as Guibert puts it, “where his penis had been cut off [God] left a little perforation, if I may put it that way, for passing urine.”[28] The only partial repair of the cleric’s self-injury suggests that God had kept the genitals for himself, so transforming a forbidden auto-castration into a divine gift. The other, most angelic half of the tradition is thicker with examples. These flow from the account of the monk Elias in the Greek of Palladius’s early fourth-century Lausiac History, and especially through a similar story in the Latin of Gregory the Great’s sixth-century Dialogues.[29] There Equitius prays that his “carnis incentiva” [carnal temptation] might be tamed; at night, in a vision, “assistente angelo eunuchizari se vidit” [he sees himself castrated while an angel attends him]. From that point onward, all genital movement of his members was severed, “ac si sexum non haberet in corpore”[30] [as if he had no genitals {or gender} in his body]. In the eighth century, the layman Walfred, dismayed by the sexual desire that had given him five sons, was likewise blessed with mystical castration.[31] Gerald of Wales’ twelfth-century Gemma ecclesiastica has Hugh of Avalon (also known as Hugh of Lincoln) cured of his sexual desire through a similar remedy,[32] while in the thirteenth, William of Tocco provides this solution for Aquinas himself, who is miraculously visited by angels, who bind his genitals so he abhors and avoids women.[33] Not everyone received this treatment so calmly or gently: Caesarius of Heisterbach recalls a monk unable to live without women’s company; his prior convinces him to spend one more night in the cloister, whereupon:
Vix tenuiter obdormierat, et ecce! conspexit eminus virum horribilem in effigie carnificis ad se venientem, cultellum longum tenentem in manu, et sequebatur eum canis magnus et niger....Ille vero multum impetuose arreptis eius genitalibus abscidit canique proiecit, que ille mox devoravit.[34]
Scarcely had he fallen into a light sleep, when Behold! He saw at a distance a horrible man, in the likeness of a butcher [or executioner] coming towards him, carrying a long knife in his hands, and following him, there was a great, black dog … this man, with great fury, snatched his genitals, cut them off, and threw them to the dog, which quickly devoured them.
When he wakes up thinking that he had been “eunuchizatum,” he delights in finding himself whole, and settles into remaining a monk. In this mostly angelic side of the tradition, in which the happy castrate just watches approvingly as the offending part is tamed, we have a perpetuation of dynamics of submission, trust in authority, and idealizations of self-mastery on behalf of an unimpeachable father figure. Not that this is different than the usual model of castration. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the clerical castration fantasy, then, is that it gets us back to the same old story. It does not circumvent, but rather extends, the regime of the phallus, demonstrating, yet again, how the ideal of the phallus can persist even in the absence of the penis.
Circumvention needs to be sought elsewhere, through the path of indifference.

[1] Karl Zeumer, ed. Liber iudiciorum, sive Lex Visigothorum, MGH Leges nationum Germanicarum I (Hannover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1902) III, 5, 7, p. 165; Samuel Parsons Scott, trans., The Visigothic Code (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1910), 111, is a standard English translation.
[2] Klaus van Eickels, “Gendered Violence: Castration and Blinding as Punishment for Treason in Normandy and Anglo-Norman England,” Gender & History 16.3 (2004): 588–602.
[3] Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 9187 32v, readily available online through the Gallica website. For discussion of the images, see Barbara Morel, Une iconographie de la répression judiciaire: le châtiment dans l’enluminure en France du XIIIe au XVe siècle (Paris: Éd. du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 2007).
[4] Mary E. Leech “The Castrating of the Shrew: The Performance of Masculinity and Masculine Identity in La dame escolliee,” in Larissa Tracy, ed., Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), 219.
[5] Cultural studies of medieval castration can be found in Tracy, Castration, and Laurence Moulinier-Brogi, “La Castration dans l’occident médiéval,” in Corps Outragés, Corps Ravagés de l’Antiquité Au Moyen Âge, ed. Lydie Bodiou and Véronique Mehl (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 189–216; for a global framework, Kathryn M. Ringrose, “Eunuchs in Historical Perspective,” History Compass 5, no. 2 (2007): 495–506; for early modern and Enlightenment Europe, Katherine Crawford, “Desiring Castrates, or How to Create Disabled Social Subjects,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 16, no. 2 (2016): 59–90. My chapter uses “castration” to refer either to the removal of the testicles or the penis. For more nuanced treatments of terminology, see Mathew Kuefler, “Castration and Eunuchism in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), 285-6, and Robert L. A. Clarke, “Culture Loves a Void: Eunuchry in De Vetula and Jean Le Fèvre's La Vieille,” in Tracy, Castration, 290.
[6] Forced tonsuring, for example, was a key form of “castration” for the long-haired nobles of the Merovingian kingdoms; Robert Mills, “The Signification of Tonsure,” in Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, ed. P. H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 109–26. Representation psychoanalytic frameworks include Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Cornell University Press, 1993), 57 -- "the melancholic relation to the phallus is...the only relation to the phallus, which is defined precisely by the inability any subject, male or female, to possess it without being dis-possessed by it" – or, similarly, Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 85.
[7] Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 329.
[8] For example, Juanita Feros Ruys, “‘Ut Sexu Sic Animo’: The Resolution of Sex and Gender in the ‘Planctus’ of Abelard,” Medium Aevum 75, no. 1 (2006): 6, which reaffirms Martin Irvine, “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculization,” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, eds., Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (New York: Garland, 1997), 87–106. In the same volume, see as well Bonnie Wheeler, “Origenary Fantasies: Abelard’s Castration and Confession,” 107-28. Also see Tracy, "Introduction: A History of Calamities: The Culture of Castration," in Tracy, Castration, 12-19.
[9] The last twenty years have produced many studies of the masculinity of medieval celibate Christian clergy. In the introduction to her anthology Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), Claire Lees established the field’s methodology by emphasizing the “multifaceted dynamic of male experience” that operated dialectically, rather than as a static hierarchy, in relationship to femininity (xx). More recently, Ruth Mazo Karras, “Thomas Aquinas’s Chastity Belt: Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives,” in Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, ed. Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 52–67, argues that the “heroic chastity” (57) of clerics was a genre of masculinity rather than, as R. W. Swanson claims, a third gender; the same volume, Jacqueline Murray extends this discussion of the clerical sex/gender continuum in “One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?”, 34-51. For specific attention to the twelfth century and castration, see Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 33–35.
[10] Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrilogiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 217 vols. (Paris, 1844) [hereafter PL] 178:372B.
[11] PL 178:207A. For the English, Betty Radice, trans., The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (New York: Penguin, 1974), 148.
[12] Wheeler, “Castration and Confession,” in Cohen and Wheeler, Becoming Male, 111.
[13] Jacqueline Murray, “‘The Law of Sin That Is in My Members’: The Problem of Male Embodiment,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih (New York: Routledge, 2005), 17. Murray discusses this aspect with particular attention to Abelard in “Mystical Castration: Some Reflections on Peter Abelard, Hugh of Lincoln, and Sexual Control,” in Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West, ed. Jacqueline Murray (New York: Garland, 1999), 76-80.
[14] Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), XIV.23, 470.
[15] Ibid., XIV.24, 473.
[16] Ibid., XIV.24, 473.
[17] Ibid., XIV.23, 471.
[18] Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f. 11r provides a representative example, easily accessible through the Aberdeen Bestiary website. For an extended discussion of medieval beaver lore, see Ellen Lorraine Friedrich, “Insinuating Indeterminate Gender: A Castration Motif in Guillaume de Lorris’s Romans de la rose,” in Tracy, Castration, 264-74.
[19] Kenneth Gouwens, “Emasculation as Empowerment: Lessons of Beaver Lore for Two Italian Humanists,” European Review of History/Revue Européene d’histoire 22, no. 4 (2015): 536–62.
[20] From his Gemma Ecclesiastica, quoted in Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest, 1, and discussed at more length in 36-37.
[21] Quoted in Murray, “One Flesh,” 43.
[22] PL 175:669A, cited in Sean Eisen Murphy, “The Letter of the Law: Abelard, Moses, and the Problem of Being a Eunuch,” Journal of Medieval History 30 (2004): 177.
[23] Jack Collins, "Appropriation and Development of Castration as Symbol and Practice in Early Christianity," in Tracy, Castration and Culture, 73-86.
[24] See the Vetus Latina Database, available through Brepols.
[25] For the history of the exegesis of this verse and canon law on castration, Collins, “Castration as Symbol and Practice,” Daniel F. Caner, “The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity,” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 4 (1997): 396–415, and Murphy, “Problem of Being a Eunuch,” 168–69.
[26] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. Andrew Louth and G. A. Williamson (London: Penguin, 1989), 186.
[27] For these stories, see Murray, “Male Embodiment,” 15.
[28] Guibert of Nogent, A Monk’s Confession, trans. Paul J. Archambault (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 204. For further context, Ryan D. Giles, “The Miracle of Gerald the Pilgrim: Hagiographic Visions of Castration in the Liber Sancti Jacobi and Milagros de Nuestra Señora,” Neophilologus 94 (2010): 439–50.
[29] Caner, “Self-Castration,” 411; Giles, “Miracle of Gerald the Pilgrim,” 443.
[30] PL 77:165C.
[31] Ross Balzaretti, “Sexuality in Late Lombard Italy, C. 700-800 AD,” in Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook, ed. April Harper and Caroline Proctor (New York: Routledge, 2010), 23.
[32] Cited in Giles, “Miracle of Gerald the Pilgrim,” 444.
[33] Murray, “Mystical Castration,” 84.
[34] Die Wundergeschichten des Caesarius von Heisterbach, ed. Alfons Hilka (Bonn: Hanstein, 1933), 75.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BABEL: Call for Parliamentarians and #BABEL17

a message from the BABEL WORKING GROUP

[Prepping or organizing for January 20? See Jeffrey's rundown of resources and events.]

Parliament of birds. 'Attar, Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), dated AH 898 (1493-94 CE). Bodleian Library MS Elliott 246, fol. 25v; explore more here.


BABEL is an ever-evolving entity. Historically, our leadership has been comprised in a couple of different ways – thriving on the time and energy of a couple of people, steered by a dozen committee members, or driven by several subcommittees. The one constant over time has been the energy of BABEL’s membership. With our 2017 elections, it is time to evolve once again, to better harness the energy of BABELers everywhere. We aspire to avoid hierarchies, foster balance, encourage individual commitments, embrace inclusiveness, and recruit/mentor newbies, all while caring for our fundamental responsibilities and seeding new growth. We therefore imagine a new rhizome: a parliament of monsters. First and foremost, we welcome all members of the BABEL community (yes, this means you) to become as involved as you would like to be. A number of parliamentarians will be elected, and will include anyone who applies, is willing to put in the work, and then puts in the work. We will also be electing three fates responsible for three aspects of leadership: spinning visions, numbers, and timing. Finally, the parliament will include a number of chompers, who will mentor and speed parliamentarians and fates as they deliver on their promises.

We therefore issue our 2017 Call for Parliamentarians. If you would like to serve, please submit a proposal for a project by Jan 31 for public discussion until Feb 13. Suggestions are welcome from those who have ideas for projects but cannot serve at this time, and candidates are welcome to adopt legacy projects or routine necessities. Projects may be large or small. Starting on Feb 14, the current steering committee will discuss and select as many of these projects as possible, resulting in our roster of 2017 parliamentarians and giving each 2017 parliamentarian a project by Feb 23. Please note that all parliamentarians will be expected to join Slack, the platform where our conversations take place, and to participate in larger conversations about the running of BABEL.

To propose and discuss projects, please visit this shared document of proposals.

Legacy Projects and Routine Necessities could include:

• Website redesign and maintenance
• Annual Spring fundraiser
• Awards
• Regular conference sessions and events (Kzoo, MLA, MAA, etc)
• Biennial BABEL Meeting
• Social media presence
• Documentation of BABEL events
• Ensure BABEL events and actions are accessible
• Invite and include various communities as part of BABEL events – poets, scientists, PoC, queers, Anglo-Saxonists, high school students…


The Call for Sessions for #BABEL17 ("MAKE / RISK / WORK" in Reno, NV, 26-29 October 2017) is now extended to January 31!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ready for January 20?

by J J Cohen

I am sharing here my weekly WATCH (Writers Artists Thinkers Challenge Hate) digest of posts because with the inauguration approaching these resources may be of wide use. You know how we five ITM bloggers feel about what happened on November 11, and (as Jonathan made clear yesterday) we are not relenting in the days ahead. See you at the protests and the march?

Hello everyone,
Here is your weekly digest of WATCH posts. It's Inauguration Week! If you are coming to DC, perhaps I will see you at the inauguration protests or the Women's March on Washington. Here are four lists to get you started for DC as well as national actions:

Here are some important posts from WATCH from the past week:
Poetry readings against Trump (wouldn't it be great if poets were to become political forces again as a result of the election?)
See Something, Leak Something for federal employees.
Celebrating MLK day (via Asa Mittman).
Some words of inspiration from our current president.
A Wall of US (distributes actionable resistance emails) via Dorothy Kim.
A volunteer-sourced guide for resisting the Trump agenda with practical information on how to challenge congress and your other elected officials, plus links to local resources.
What have I missed? Please let me know in the comments.

yours in solidarity and hope,

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Medieval Studies: Rallying Cry and Affirmation


My #MLA17 "hot take" for medievalists: we all have to STEP UP.

Look at what the professional organizations and most prestigious journals in earlier historical periods are doing. The Society for Classical Studies has a leadership statement against racism and its major conference featured a politically urgent plenary (had to be delivered by proxy) by a prominent scholar who is also an undocumented immigrant; the most recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly addresses early modern race and Shakespeare reception with essays by ethnic minority academics; the Shakespeare Association of America has an annual social for Scholars of Color (and allies).* We as a discipline and a community need to unambiguously stand up against white nationalism and the abuse of the past -- especially in a field that fuels racist fantasies. Medieval studies is not just about the past; it must build a better future.

*Note also a AIA-SCS session on immigration (organized by the Committee on the Status of Women and Minority Groups) and Affiliated group for Classics and Social Justice with a CFP for 2018; the linked SAA program schedule features among other things a plenary on the "Color of Membership" but the SOC social is not yet listed.

For an AFFIRMING thread broadcasting the many things we ARE doing in medieval studies (rather than just calling out what we "oppose"), check out this public thread at BABEL Futures.

Any other efforts, schemes, affirmations, hortatory speeches, or news you'd like to share? Add to the comment thread below (it's moderated, so please be patient!)

Monday, January 02, 2017

retrospect, prospect

by J J Cohen

Hello everyone, and a very happy new year to you. My wishes mostly involve hope and I have conveyed them as best I can here.

So. 2016 was an energetic twelve months here at In the Middle. We're happy that this little electronic space has offered a resource for thinking about the humanities, especially in troubled times, and we are grateful to you for your support. Believe it or not the blog turned ten years old last January -- in fact it's now almost eleven (tempus fugit!). This site has been visited 2,886,727 times as of this moment. Something like 50-75,000 page views occur each month, with visitors concentrated in the US, the UK and Canada but otherwise arriving from around the world.

We published our most popular blog post of all time in December, a magnificent guest essay by Sierra Lomuto on White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies that has been read 20,000 times to date. Our second most popular post -- ever! -- is this year's timely guest piece Not Subtle; Not Quaint by Sonja Drimmer and Damian Fleming (accessed 11500 times). Third is a post by Laura Saetveit Miles on The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (10000 page views). For some context, consider that most scholarly books have an initial print run of perhaps 200 copies; journal articles may reach even fewer readers, depending on venue. We consider In the Middle to be a shared, communal space and we are therefore very happy that these guest posts have resonated. We hope to keep them coming in the months ahead. If you have ideas, contact a co-blogger.

Here are a few highlights from the rich year that has passed. My theory is that difficult times engendered a great deal of energy here, as you'll see from the themes. Let me know what I've missed, especially if you had favorites that did not make this idiosyncratic list -- and feel free to link to other blogs and their important posts in the comments.
Allow me to end with my personal favorite post of the year, The Story I Want to Tell. The piece was cathartic to write, and I returned to it recently as a ward against despair. Let's all attempt to tell better, more challenging stories in 2017. We need them.

Here's to 2017: the year we resist hate, together.