Monday, October 24, 2016

Habitability: Buridan on Dark-Skinned People


BnF français 25344, 128v, Gautier de Metz, Image du Monde

[a slight morning edit] Yesterday, my "Problems in Posthumanism" graduate seminar worked on Alexander and Dindimus, Montaigne on Cannibals, Petrarch on the Canary Islands (well, we at least read it), and chiefly Sylvia Wynter's groundbreaking, monumental "1492: A New World View."

Among other things, Wynter observes that the medieval "Scholastic order of knowledge" held that all humans lived only within a narrow habitable zone in the Northern hemisphere, because the cold of the far North and the heat of the tropics barred Adam's descendants from any further travel. She argues that when Europeans realized that the globe was peopled all over, the scholastic epistemological order collapsed, so clearing the way for the rise of secularization. (if you don't know the essay, here's a summary to start you off; I'd also highly recommend the Wynter interview with Katherine McKittrick in On Being Human as Praxis).

Wynter's '1492' is therefore an essay about epistemological breaks, the end of the Middle Ages, and also, very much so, about new possibilities for the human to realize its full potential. It's a strange essay for a medievalist and posthumanist to teach, but necessary, because of its commitment to antiracism and anticolonialism, and because of its breathtakingly ambitious combination of geography, cultural history, systems theory, and cognitive science (!).

I naturally prepped by rereading Valerie Flint's 1984 Viator article on the (uninhabitable) antipodes and the premodern community of monsters and men, all encompassed within a homogeneous humanity; and by glancing at Aquinas on Aristotle's Meteorology, where our Dumb Ox follows Augustine, Bede, and other luminaries by asserting that most of the earth is unpeopled, eg,
Just as these places are uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat, so the regions under the constellation of the Bear [which is the part of the heaven always visible to us] are uninhabitable on account of the cold caused by the sun being far away. Hence that part of the earth in which we live is between the two circles, i.e., between the one that passes through the summer tropic and the one which bounds that part of the heaven always visible to us.
So far so good. But to complicate Wynter, I also reviewed the Book of John Mandeville, whose hundreds of manuscripts affirm a fully inhabited globe; consulted Higgins' Mandeville to glance at the 1330 Directorium ad faciendum passagium transmarinum (translated soon thereafter into French by Jean de Vignay), in which a widely traveled Dominican asserts the Earth's general habitability (and therefore offers another route for crusades); and, at last, I skimmed the problem of the Earth's habitability in Jean Buridan's fourteenth-century Quaestiones super libris de caelo et mundo, which presents a wide range of options on this problem, even in the very Parisian center of the "Scholastic order of knowledge."

I did this not to disprove Wynter (and indeed, in the course of prepping the class, I found 'disproofs' of Wynter that stumbled, badly, because of their ignorance of the Middle Ages). As my students observed, Wynter is enormously generative, and though she does make errors in (medieval) facts, so do Agamben and Foucault and other notables in "traveling theory": but few declare Agamben and Foucault useless because of this. One suspects that the withering corrections of Wynter are motivated by something other than scrupulous rigor.

Rather, I was doing my duty as a medievalist and to the Middle Ages: I presented a heterogeneous premodern, a Europe not dominated by a singular scholastic "Feudal" order of knowledge, but one that nonetheless would be profoundly altered by the European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. And while reading Buridan, I found this (and my Latin's a bit rusty, so do correct me if I went astray):
And now we speak about the middle zone that is between the tropics within the equator. Immediately it appears that this is uninhabited because of too great heat, since coming up on the tropic of Cancer they [=travelers?] find so much heat that there the men are burned and black beyond the common measure of men, looking like those of India and Ethiopia. Therefore, it seems that beyond this heat that no man could live there. And this is confirmed, since if it were inhabited beyond this zone, some of us would have come to them, or they would have come to us; which is an unheard of thing [thanks Tony Hasler below for the emendation!], as some say.
Et modo dicemus de zona media quae est inter tropicos sub aequinoctiali. Statim enim prima facie apparet quod illa propter nimium calorem sit inhabitabilis, quia procedentes usque ad tropicum Cancri inveniunt tantum calorem, quod ibi homines ultra communem modum hominum aduruntur et fiunt nigri, sicut apparet de Indis et Aethiopibus; ideo videtur quod ultra esset tanta caliditas quod non possent ibi homines habitare. Et hoc confirmatur, quia si esset ultra habitatio, aliqui nostrum venissent ad eos, vel illi venissent ad nos; quod non est auditum, ut aliqui dicunt. (quoted from Ernest A. Moody, "John Buridan on the Habitability of the Earth") (also available here, p 156).
As as counterexample, Buridan next cites Avicenna, who believes that the equatorial zone is not only inhabited, but even graced by mild weather (and a very noble city!), since there the sun passes directly overhead, remaining so only for a short time, while elsewhere, the angle of the sun means it beats down on us for longer. Maybe so!

I'm particularly struck by Buridan's "proof" on the basis of skin color. While this is a scholastic "proof," and therefore offered more as a thought experiment than a certain description of reality, it still says something about what dark-skinned people are made to represent for Buridan.

Even as a man from the "frozen North" (which is to say, Béthune, roughly between Arras and Dunkirk), he likely would have encountered dark-skinned people in his life, and certainly in art. However, Buridan's proof at least implicitly asserted that such dark-skinned people were evidence that there could be no darker people. The darker the person, the more certain that the torrid zones were uninhabitable. Darkness tended towards impossibility, nonexistence, a life that could not be.

He notably has nothing similar to say about whiteness "beyond the common measure of man" as disproving the habitability of the far North. More directly to my point, and perhaps to Wynter's, darkness is at once evidence of the limits of habitability and an intimation of uninhabitability: it was a visible sign of the limits of life, and therefore a kind of geographical memento mori. Or vacuum. Wynter argues that in the modern era the medieval habitable/uninhabitable mapping would be remapped onto the color line:
the color line had come to inscribe a premise parallel, if in different terms, to that which had been encoded in the feudal Christian order, by the line of caste that had been mapped onto the physical universe as well as onto the geography of the earth....[viz.] the white (unmixed people of Indo-European descent) and the black (peoples of wholly or of partly African descent) opposition, with the latter hereditary variation or phenotype coming to reoccupy the earlier signifying place of the earlier torrid and Western Hemisphere, within the logic of the contemporary globalized and purely secular variant of the Judaeo-Christian culture of the West. (39)
In other words, in the modern era, Black people come to signify, for the dominant White-identified genre of Man, the form of human life that is excluded from the human. They are a materialization of non-identity, of non-existence, of Human non-being. And perhaps we have here, in Buridan, a hint of the same, of what would metastasize into the full, horrendous form it took in the sixteenth century and onward.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Oure dedes ben of o colour": John Gower wins a Nobel!

Alexander and the Pirate, from the Buch der Tugend (via ArtStor)

Brief words of congratulations are in order for John Gower's Nobel prize win. Like certain other prolific writers, Gower has produced "a large number of [verses] revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics, and love." Surely we all know this representative moment?
It fell per chance upon a day
A rovere of the see was nome,
Which many a man hadde overcome
And slain and take here good aweie.
This pilour, as the bokes seie,
A famous man in sondri stede
Was of the werkes whiche he dede.
This prisoner tofor the king
Was broght, and there upon this thing
In audience he was accused.
And he his dede hath noght excused,
Bot preith the king to don him riht,
And seith, 'Sire, if I were of miht,
I have an herte lich to thin;
For if the pouer were myn,
Mi will is most in special
To rifle and geten overal
The large worldes good aboute.
Bot for I lede a povere route
And am, as who seith, at meschief,
The name of pilour and of thief
I bere; and thou, which routes grete
Miht lede and take thi begete,
And dost riht as I wolde do,
Thi name is nothing cleped so,
Bot thou art named "Emperour."*
Oure dedes ben of o colour
And in effect of o decerte,
Bot thi richesse and my poverte
Tho ben noght taken evene liche.

* "Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you a king"

(via me, here)

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Not Subtle; Not Quaint

There is a particularly harrowing scene in Mad Men, when Don Draper—the advertising executive at the center of the show—exhibits his dominance over one of his (very many) sexual partners and adversaries by grabbing her by the crotch. There is nothing sexy or seductive about the action. It is violent. It is chilling. It is hard to watch.

But what it is not is anomalous. 

Last week we all saw a video in which we can hear, loud and clear, the voice of the GOP nominee for president boasting about his sexually predatory behavior against women. He  says,

I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.
And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Despite the barrage of misogynist statements he’s spewed on radio and television over the last year, it was this clip which finally shook the members of his political party out of their willing slumber. They have condemned him, expressed varying degrees of outrage, said they’re sickened by his words. They’ve virtually stampeded towards the EXIT sign away from their party’s nominee for president.

As if his words represented something never before heard, never before seen, so deviant, that only now can they see him for the monster that he is.

Except he’s not a monster. He’s a man. A man acculturated by a long tradition of misogyny. I am glad that so many politicians have come out against Trump (too little too late). But Trump himself may be closer to the truth when he referred to his comments as “locker room banter” in an official statement (to which I won’t link; but here is a WSJ editorial about it). They are closer to the truth not because most men speak this way among one another (I doubt they do), and they are certainly closer to the truth not because the alleged banality of this language is reason to excuse it. Rather, they’re closer to the truth of a longstanding trope of misogynist dominance over women’s bodies—a trope that medievalists know well.

Many readers of this blog were surely reminded of Chaucer’s description of Nicholas’s assault on Alison,

And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.”

Nicholas grabbed her by the pussy. And then he said, “if I have my will.” Don Draper grabbed Bobbie Barrett by the pussy. And then he said, “Do what I say.” Donald Trump boasted that he “grab[s] ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Never original, Trump was availing himself of a stock gesture of violence that expresses dominance over women via the route of women’s bodies—arguably (arguably) even the body part that most defines a woman in biological terms.

Medieval objects feature this gesture commonly (more commonly than we’d imagined, in fact; but Damian uncovered a number of these images relatively quickly and with ease). In certain cases, as in the Taymouth Hours, the gesture is an explicit sign of sexual violence, condemned by the caption below.
British Library, Yates Thompson MS 13, fol. 177r

Victoria & Albert Museum, Museum Number 220-1867

British Library, Royal MS 16 G vi, fol 4v

Notice how in two of those images, the woman who are being groped and grabbed and seized make gestures of shock. With their hands up and, in one case, body turned away, they register the full horror of the assault.

One of the most significant contributions of this blog has been to show us how much we live with the Middle Ages today, how much we speak with phrases uttered hundreds of years ago, how much we see with eyes primed by visual traditions of the medieval past. And one of the consequences of this knowledge is that we can no longer dismiss as anomalous behaviors that are objectionable and damaging. Nor can we condemn as anachronistic or opportunistic scholars who would see in medieval art and literature deep resonance with our culture today. The words spoken by the Republican nominee for president emerge from our cultural legacy. It is up to us to engage with that legacy until the day that is so truly beyond the pale of understanding, so alien, that it becomes impossible to act and illegible to read.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Elements: A New Series at Duke University Press

This new series looks great! Notice the medieval and early modern shout-outs. -- JJC


A book series for Duke University Press
Managing Editor, Courtney Berger

Over the past decade, studies of culture have crystallized around the elements, as scholars have endeavored to think with material substances. The classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire for example, have inspired several recent books, including Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone (2015), and Thinking with Water, edited by Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis. Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff drawing together histories of fire, cultural theories of the sun, and pyrotechnics, have proposed that a “generalized study of combustion” is key to understanding human energetic exchanges.[1] More broadly, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert recently published a collection driven by all the classical elements, assembling elemental criticism as an explicitly ecological project: Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Other forms of matter, from ice to plastics, are forming new centers for emerging environmentally-oriented conversations.[2] And we expect that more scholars will undertake projects focusing on the chemical elements of contemporary science, as carbon, rare earth minerals, and polymetallic sulfides—entangled in climate change, ocean acidification, terrestrial mining and deep sea mining—become the focus of scientific, ethical, and political concerns.
Book series tend to be bound by geographic areas, disciplinary focus, a shared set of theoretical questions, and objects of study. The Elements series would include texts with a commitment to examining social and cultural processes in relation to particular forms of matter, regardless of disciplinary approach. We imagine that the series will include historical texts that explicate discourses and knowledge about the elements, ethnographies that track how the elements are socially engaged and culturally constituted, studies of scientific knowledge of the elements, and works that think through the representation and material role of the elements in the production of art, texts and technologies. Regardless of their site, we welcome texts in which the elements, whether as part of the waves of the ocean or the circulations of the atmosphere, are not a neutral background, but lively forces that shape culture, politics, and communication. We are interested in manuscripts that track the elements in their classical sense, that follow particular scientific elements, molecules, and materials, or that offer inventive sites for rethinking what constitutes the elemental.

The elemental approach has reached the point where researchers have begun to offer philosophies and paradigms for its analysis, including David Macauley’s Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (2010), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s edited collection, Elemental Ecocritcism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (2015), and John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of ElementalMedia (2015). These works offer a number of strategic reasons to adopt the elemental as a framework for ecological analysis, rather than concepts such as “environment” or “nature.” Macauley writes, for example, that understanding the elements does not entail “referring back to ‘Nature’ itself as an entirely stable sphere of meaning—a repository of the ontologically pregiven—so much as gesturing forward (sideward and wayward) to the possibility of discovering a more fluid, open and unfolding philosophical framework and ecological field.”[3] Although many of the elemental works mentioned above have been motivated by a need to better understand the ecological crisis, many others do not fit within existing ecocritical and environmental frameworks. And similarly, just as many of these works are informed by work in the new materialism, not all operate under this rubric.

As is true of the elements themselves, the books we witness engaging them, and which we would feature in this series, are not always neatly constrained in a particular field such as geography, history, anthropology, literary criticism or philosophy, nor within areas such as digital media or new materialism, even as their study has profound implications for all of these fields. In assembling diverse inquiries into particular forms of matter, we hope that the series will be a meeting ground for work on earth, water, air, chemicals, minerals, fuels, plastics, and other such substances as they circulate and interact with and as part of environmental, technological, cultural and political formations. Our interest is not in creating a set of definitions for what the elemental might be, but to open a space for such innovative work at Duke University Press. Duke’s strengths in theory, cultural analysis, environmental studies, and science studies, and the fact that the Press has already published many works emerging around this topic, make it an ideal location for these exchanges.
In order to maintain a distinctive focus on the Elemental, we are not soliciting projects that lack sustained attention to substances and materialities. While the books in the series will all be theoretically informed—and some may be primarily theoretical—all of the projects should still engage, in a serious and sustained way, with the elements—broadly conceived.

Submission Process
Each book in the Elements series will go through the standard submission process of Duke University Press and will be approved by the series editors. For consideration in this series, please email proposals, sample, chapters, or completed manuscripts to Nicole Starosielski and Stacy Alaimo: and Proposals may also be sent directly to Courtney Berger at Duke UP:; see also

[1}Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, “Combustion and Society: A Fire-Centred History of Energy Use,” Theory, Culture & Society 31 no. 5 (September 2014): 203-226; See also: Kerry Ryan Chance, “Where there is Fire, there is Politics”: Ungovernability and Material Life in Urban South Africa,” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3 (2015): 394-423; Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015): 266-284.
[2] Jennifer Gabrys, Gay Hawkins, and Mike Michael, eds. Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic (New York: Routledge, 2013).
[3] David Macaley, Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as Environmental Ideas (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 4. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Eternity Machines: Some thoughts on That Dragon Cancer, The Swedish Rök Runestone, and Pearl

by Leila K. Norako

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to give a co-lecture on the game That Dragon Cancer. At the time, our teaching team was a little more than midway through our course, entitled "Stories Everywhere," which is designed to introduce Stanford freshmen to crucial critical thinking skills by way (at least in our case) of a series of texts, films, and -- in this case -- games that reflect the ways in which humans seek to make sense of their lived experiences through narrative (this course is part of a series created and run by Stanford's Thinking Matters program).

The game is a harrowing one to play, especially if you're particularly sensitive to stories about child illness and loss. It is also a nonfiction/autobiographic narrative. The creators, Ryan and Amy Green, starting working on this game after their son Joel was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months of age. They worked on it throughout the remaining years of Joel's life (he was only expected to live for a few months after the initial diagnosis, but would remarkably go on to live for a little over four more years). It is, at heart, an exploration game -- one that invites you into a series of fourteen vignettes wherein you inhabit either a first or third person perspective. Players are guided from one scene to the next, but the simplicity of its form allows the game to harness degrees of affective power that are all but unmatched in the video game medium. As many reviewers and players have observed, the game invites and requires players to inhabit the role of Joel's parents, experiencing a series of moments that are by turns sweet—helping Joel feed ducks, holding Joel while he sleeps (see image below)—and traumatizing, such as trying and failing to soothe a screaming, terminally sick child in the hospital room. That hospital scene, in fact, was the first vignette that Ryan Green ever created. He wanted to construct a scene that captured and helped explain the despair that a parent feels in those kinds of moments, and also his revelation that sometimes there is simply nothing that you can do.

        Screen captures from that first created scene. Players try frantically 
        to soothe the screaming child (who is invisible) but nothing works. 
        The only respite you get is the ability to swing outside of the room 
        (the bottom image) and hear the father's inner thoughts. You ultimately 
        have to go back in the room though to keep vigil with him.  

The game is infused with abstract, symbolic imagery that requires you to engage in interpretive, gap-filling work as you move through the narrative. For as linear as it the game is in structure, the story is deeply fragmented -- as a player, you are invited to inhabit critical moments in the story, but you are always aware that there is a significant portion of the story that is being left untold. Compellingly, the faces of all the characters are blank, and this was -- according to Ryan -- both a result of the limitations of the small development team and a deliberate choice. They felt that in leaving the faces undistinguished, it would be easier for others to imagine themselves in the world of the game. It also occurred to me, as I listened to the podcast "The Cathedral" (it provides a goodly amount of backstory on the game's production and on the Greens’ story), played through the game, read additional interviews, and listened to Adam Johnson lecture on the mechanics of trauma narratives in our Stories course, that the creators may well have used abstraction and the vignette structure as a way of deliberately distancing themselves from the story. As Adam pointed out to our students, the telling of a trauma narrative *can* be a cathartic and healing one for the traumatized individual, but only under certain conditions that vary from person to person. The traumatized person, in other words, may feel a strong need to tell their story, but they must do so in a way that does them good instead of harm. Otherwise, story-telling becomes either damaging or downright impossible. The abstraction, symbolic imagery, and even the shifts from first to third person, then, seem to be a way of creating just enough distance so that the creators could bear to tell the story of their son's battle with cancer and his eventual death. How could they have born the creative and development process, in other words, if they had forced themselves to stare at their son's face the entire time?

The motivations for the game evolved as Joel's treatment and prognosis evolved, and in the end (as recounted in the podcast) the family came to see That Dragon Cancer as Joel's memorial. So much so that they decided against purchasing a tombstone for Joel so that they could put that money towards the completion of the game (they were in desperate need of funds to complete it at the time of Joel's passing). They decided that this game was the best way to honor Joel, and so the decision to memorialize him through this creative process (rather than through conventional means) was a natural and seamless one.

Per Holmberg and the Rök stone. Photo by
Acke Holmberg (first appeared here)
Bronwen Tate and I worked on the lecture for several weeks—one that focused on the features of a trauma narrative that unfolds in a video game. I began to draft up our conclusion, I just so happened to stumble upon an article about the Rök stone, a Swedish runestone dating to the 9th century. This stone is nothing short of a marvel, given that the longest found example of runic script is etched upon it, and it has been the subject of considerable interpretive debate since it was found over a century ago. Its text is notoriously difficult to interpret. It begins, as so many runestones do, with a dedication— "In memory of Vämod stand these runes. And Varinn wrote them, the father, in memory of his dead son"—but what follows are a series of impenetrable and oblique riddles that provide anything but a linear recounting of Vämod’s life and deeds. However, Per Holmberg, associate professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of Gothenburg, has offered up a recent interpretation that works against the nationalistic interpretations of the previous century. The whole article – which goes into greater detail on the complicated order in which Holberg thinks the runes ought to be read—is well worth a read, but the closing paragraphs of the piece were especially striking to me as I struggled to find a way to wind our lecture to a close:

If this is the longest rune inscription ever found in stone, it must have taken its author a very long time to carve. Why didn't Varinn spend that time writing a straightforward narrative about how great Vämod was? Were riddles really the best he could think of to memorialize his slain son?
Holmberg laughed.
"That's a very good question," he said.
But here's his theory: "It's thanks to the technology of writing, Varinn, who erected the stone and inscribed it with runes, is able to keep us reading and keep us answering his riddles. And while we are doing this we are almost forced to commemorate his son."
In other words, the stone is a celebration of how words can make someone immortal. A straightforward history of any sort would have placed Vämod and his whole world squarely in the past. But Varinn's riddles have held researchers in their thrall for more than a century — and, since Holmberg's theory is likely to be challenged, probably for many more years to come.
"In Swedish, we have the phrase 'eternity machine,'" Holmberg mused. It's something akin to da Vinci's and Tesla's dream of perpetual motion — a hypothetical machine that would work indefinitely, driven by a power entirely its own.
"This written text is like an eternity machine," he continued. "It keeps us reading. It keeps us commemorating."

A close-up shot of the Rök stone. Photo by
Howard Williams. Found here.
This part of the article resonated immediately with my experiences playing and analyzing That Dragon Cancer. Holmberg’s theory – especially his point that deliberately complicated texts force us into the process of memorialization and afford the creators and the memorialized a kind of immortality—seems to me rather indelibly tied to the affective power and the motivations behind the game. Of course this game would have a non-linear narrative, as does the Rök stone. Of course it would be rife with symbolic imagery and disorienting abstraction. Of course the family would come to see it, and not a tombstone, as the best way to memorialize Joel. And so, I offered this in closing to our students: that the game, for all its innovation and seeming “newness” channels and reflects an impulse to memorialize that is quite ancient, an impulse that lies at the heart, perhaps, of human’s desires to tell these kinds of stories -- whether they be a grieving parent in 9th century Sweden, or a grieving parent in the now. In this sense they invite us, as I once wrote of Pearl, into a “strange and beautiful communion with all who have (and all who will) endure painful loss.”

Fast forward to NCS 2017: London, where Randy Schiff gave a fantastic paper on Pearl in one of Kristi Castleberry’s and my Narrative Conduits session. He made a passing, but crucially important, observation that Pearl is—in so many ways—a deliberately difficult/challenging poem, and in that instant I was immediately reminded both of the Rök stone and of this game. I still have a lot of thinking to do on this, but Randy’s comment made me wonder: to what extent might we think of Pearl as a kind of eternity machine? If we ascribe to the theory that it was written by the author in memory of his (or a patron’s) dead child, then to what extent might we understand the luminous complexity of its verse in terms of this very impulse to memorialize? Put differently, to what extent does that luminous complexity and abstraction—that careful balance between affective involvement and constructed distance—serve as evidence that this is a poem inspired by profound (and, as Dan Kline has stressed so beautifully) deeply personal loss?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Beyond the Anglophone Inner Circle of Chaucer Studies (Candace Barrington)

a guest post by Candace Barrington

[ITM has been slowly publishing as blog posts some of the presentations from the New Chaucer Society congress session "Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016." Cord Whitaker offered the first post, here; Wan-Chuan Kao offered the second here. The roundtable in London honored the long wake of Carolyn Dinshaw's 2000 Biennial Chaucer Lecture "Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers" -- especially because the NCS was returning to that city for the first time since she delivered it there. This collaboratively shaped roundtable pondered the ways in which literary medieval studies has both changed and resisted some profound challenges to its self-identity over the past decade and a half. Returning to the theme of Carolyn Dinshaw's lecture, presenters wondered about diversity among medievalists, the place of the personal, the matter of race, and the decolonization of medieval studies as a discipline.  Please share and add to the discussion! It is our hope to formulate an action plan out of the event and its aftermath. -- JJC]

Beyond the Anglophone Inner Circle of Chaucer Studies

With growing speed, global events are dismantling structures that we took for granted just months ago. This year in Brazil (recently identified with Russia, India, and China as an emerging economic power known as BRIC), the government and economy collapsed, a tragedy televised globally as the country frantically prepared to stage the "summer" Olympics and fought to limit the Zika outbreak. In late June, the Brexit vote began the process of unraveling ties between the UK and the rest of Europe, as well as exposing additional discontent within the European Union. Five days later, a bombing at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport killed 42 travelers. Then, on the last day of the NCS Congress in mid-July, we watched, first, the Turkish military's failed coup d'etat and, next, Erdoğan's more overt efforts to centralize power and strip Turkish citizens of rights that had hitherto been the hallmark of secular Turkey for nearly 100 years.

None of these events are unrelated to our work as Chaucerians. All of us in London for the New Chaucer Society Congress witnessed the destabilizing results of the Brexit vote. The ties between the UK and the rest of Europe once taken for granted seemed to be quickly dissolving. One of the speakers on the Global Chaucers roundtable, José Francisco Botelho, Brazil’s award-winning translator of Chaucer and Shakespeare, had to bow out because Brazil's once enthusiastic support for scholarship dried up. And the Istanbul bombings of made the travel of one roundtable participant an act of stoic heroism; the difficulty of her travel was highlighted when she reached home only hours before the coup shut down international travel, and the difficulty of her position was further highlighted when Turkish educators became Erdoğan's latest target.

I find these developments extraordinarily distressing. Just as we are opening up the field of Chaucer Studies to scholars, authors, and translators outside what can call the Anglophone alignment connecting Australasia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, events beyond our control threaten the easy commerce of ideas. The following comments are my contributions to a roundtable organized by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016." Drafted in late May when I had little notion of how events would unfold, I now share them with you with greater urgency than they were originally written. Also, because the panelists agreed the roundtable provided an excellent opportunity for developing a strategic plan, I close by sharing some concrete suggestions for including more Chaucerians from outside the Anglophone inner circle, suggestions I’ve gleaned from my conversations with those same Chaucerians.


The panel’s question, “Are we dark enough yet?” could be reworded “Who can lay claim to Chaucer Studies? And why?” As David Mathews and Stephanie Trigg have shown, this reworded question has never had a stable answer.[1] Nevertheless, one aspect of Chaucer Studies has remained the same for the past 200 years: the circle has gradually expanded from a tight circle of British male antiquarians to include scholars from a broad spectrum of racial, gender, national, and theoretical perspectives. It would seem that the answer to my reframed question is a happy “Anyone!”

This jolly answer, however, is mitigated by a second characteristic joining this fellowship of Chaucer Studies: with few exceptions, membership requires training or positions at universities within what we can call the Anglophone alignment. This unifying characteristic means that our scholarship is not only conducted primarily in English but also conducted according to an accepted set of norms and assumptions. Once we recognize this particular restriction to active participation in Chaucer Studies, then we must answer the panel’s original question—“Are we dark enough yet?”—with “No.” Mindful of that second answer, I argue that we need to broaden the field of Chaucer scholarship to include Chaucerians trained or working outside the Anglophone alignment. In doing so, we can avoid some of the narrow-mindedness of Eurocentrism and recognize that “our” ownership of Chaucer is a cultural and political construction, not a natural inheritance.

I come to these questions and my answers regarding diversity in Chaucer Studies through Global Chaucers, a collaborative project Jonathan Hsy and I initiated in 2012. What began as an effort to collect and study examples of post-1945 non-Anglophone appropriations and translations of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales has transformed into a network of scholars, students, translators, and poets on six continents. (We still await collaborators from Antarctica.) Before Global Chaucers, Chaucerians outside the Anglophone alignment might attend NCS Congresses and some, such as Japanese and Western European scholars, might publish articles and books with mainstream Anglophone journals and presses. There were, however, few organized efforts to tap into the insights of those of the edges of the Anglophone inner circle.

Without planning to, Global Chaucers has begun bringing in a wider range of global Chaucerians. Working together to better understand Chaucer's fourteenth-century texts, this twenty-first-century collective has given us new ways to interpret and appreciate The Canterbury Tales. In addition, this collective can reorient those of us coming to Chaucer and medieval literature from within the academy's Anglophone alignment by reminding of us of two cultural myths. The first myth is our direct connection to the British literary heritage. Though we might study this British heritage in the United States, Canada, and Australia as part of our national heritage, our apparent connection is a tenuous construction left over from nineteenth-century nationalist medievalism. The second myth considers the "Middle Ages" or the "Medieval" a universal phenomenon, a misguided perception that a global perspective quickly dispels.

Global Chaucers helps expose the first myth: that Anglophone cultures are natural offshoots of British culture. For centuries, Chaucer's reception was considered in terms of British poets and authors. Only in the past quarter century have we considered his artistic reception beyond the British Isles—or his popular reception anywhere. As we have learned from these newer studies of Chaucer's reception, the English literary tradition allowed some former colonies—Australasia, Canada, and the United States—to create an Anglophone alignment with the United Kingdom that not only pretended they shared a single cultural heritage but also erased the indigenous cultural legacies. This Anglophone alignment views the British Middle Ages not as alien to their actual, individual indigenous histories but as a seamless prelude to their colonial history. Here, British literary culture has been so acculturated as the natural source of all Anglophone literatures that Chaucer—not indigenous or migrant voices—becomes the father of each former colonial nation's literary culture. What had long been taken for granted as the natural order, we now see as highly cultivated and artificial. Conversely, this linguistic (as well as cultural and political) alignment has allowed us to consider ourselves an inner circle with exclusive rights to safeguard the Anglophone heritage. Though we've smuggled exclusive ownership of the British heritage to our distant shores, we have been less keen on listening to what others might say about Chaucer and his works.

Global Chaucers also helps expose the second myth: that the temporality we call "medieval" is a universal phenomenon. Those of us coming to Chaucer from Anglophone cultures can easily miss how local this temporality is. Thinking about the global reception of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales requires us to ask what it means for those outside western Europe to appropriate a medieval text. Though it's easy for the West (which does include the Anglophone alignment) to adopt the Middle Ages as our own, we cannot assume The Canterbury Tales neatly fits into every culture's sense of what was happening in the late-fourteenth century. Nadia Altschul puts it well with her contention that "the Middle Ages is not a global historical time…but a local European time span."[2] According to this line of reasoning, the term "medieval" refers to people, places, texts, and artifacts associated with the European Middle Ages. Furthermore, “medievalism” or “medieval studies” refers to the reception of those same European Middle Ages. While this limitation might seem to privilege a Eurocentric vantage, in fact it de-centers the European model as the one by which the rest of the world’s cultures are understood. Indeed, by acknowledging that non-western cultures such as China and Persia have temporalities independent of Europe’s, we recognize that European history is not the measure to judge histories and cultures of other geographical regions. That Chaucer's reception in these non-European cultures must negotiate these multiple temporalities helps us recognize the many limitations inherent in the concept "medieval."

Furthermore, at the same time our work with this global project has exposed some limitations in the ways we think about our relationship to him, his texts, and his world, Global Chaucers has also helped us re-orient the ways we read and interpret Chaucerian texts. Already we've begun this process via careful queries of Chaucer's non-Anglophone reception beyond the British Isles. We look outside the Anglophone alignment in order to understand the insights brought to medieval studies by a new breed of Chaucerians—translators who never considered themselves Chaucerians and scholars who have felt themselves shoved to the margins of Chaucerian research.

As I have argued elsewhere, scholars from outside the Anglophone alignment provide perspectives that help reshape our sense of the past and the ways we have used the past to justify ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as allies. [3] These scholars fortify recent research in medievalism that exposes the misperceptions at the root of nationalist medievalism's much beloved image of a somewhat isolated proto-nation populated by a single people speaking one common vernacular. Now that the image of medieval Europe as a series of isolated states has been replaced with a medieval Europe that is more cosmopolitan—where people were more mobile, more polyglot, and less ethnically pure than has been imagined—global Chaucerians can help us locate “both non-foundational and non-imperial ways for ‘doing medieval studies’ in a post-national, neo-colonial world.”[4]

Not only do translators and scholars with non-European linguistic and cultural heritages provide perspectives and knowledge otherwise unavailable to us, they remind us of the fruitful consequences of collaboration. For instance, none of us can master all the languages necessary to study the global reception of medieval texts and artifacts; however, by creating a network of scholars and translators, we can uncover exciting global exchanges, which will in turn help us understand how the European Middle Ages and their subsequence reception were shaped by a whirling circulation of languages and cultures. Despite their inadequate access to research materials and limited opportunities to participate in larger conversations, we have found these Chaucerians have much to teach us.

If we want this larger, more global understanding of Chaucer’s reception and his texts, then we must be more sensitive to the extreme isolation, both geographical and institutional, under which these Chaucerians work. Because many of them teach English-language literature in small comparative literature or foreign language departments, these scholars are often the only ones at their universities working in medieval studies. Their resources are often minuscule, and they are often unfamiliar with publication practices inside the Anglophone alignment. They receive little mentoring, even less active sponsoring, and as a result can feel unwelcomed at our conferences and excluded from our publications. Not only are these Chaucerians and their contributions often invisible to the larger field of scholars, but, as the events in Turkey have illustrated, these Chaucerians are extremely vulnerable.

At the 2016 NCS Congress, we saw important steps towards bringing these scholars and translators into a larger, more collaborative circle. I counted thirty slots (as either presenters or organizers) filled by members from outside the Anglophone axis. Of those, thirteen hailed from Western Europe (Netherlands, Spain, France, Switzerland, and Germany), four from Scandinavia (Denmark, Iceland, and Norway), and two from Eastern Europe (Poland). Of the remaining twelve, seven work in Asia (Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan), four in the Middle East (Turkey, Israel, and Kuwait), and one in Brazil (who was unable to attend after the Brazilian economy crashed this spring.) I also met additional scholars from Turkey and China who attended the conference but did not participate directly in the program. Each time I listened to them, I learned more about Chaucer and his global reception.

It's time for Chaucerians actively to broaden our circle. I've asked scholars and translators in our Global Chaucers network about the sorts of support they need. Here's what I've heard:

1.     Rethink what we mean by scholarship by recognizing the value of translation and performance.
2.     Offer to share copies of articles and book chapters otherwise unavailable to these Chaucerians.
3.     Explore modes of scholarship more amenable to those with limited resources and different training.
4.     Reinforce the value of reception studies and translation studies in journals and book series that we edit.
5.     Seek scholars and teachers outside the inner-most circles; invite them to collaborate in publication projects and grant opportunities. These scholars and graduate students need more than mentoring—they need active sponsors.
6.     Provide fellowships and other opportunities for scholars outside the inner-circles to study and interact with others.
7.     Develop more open-access resources, such as the Open Access Companion to The Canterbury Tales.
8.     Promote the Chaucer Bibliography, which has become more and more inclusive, thanks to the work of Mark Allen and Stephanie Amsler.

I encourage you to institute and stabilize these and other modes of collaboration and support. Unfolding events have demonstrated the uncertainty of resources and remind us of the value in working together. I suspect the future will only confirm these lessons.

[1] David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, 1765-1910, Medieval Cultures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Stephanie Trigg, Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
[2] Nadia Altschul, “Transfer,” in Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, ed. Richard Utz and Elizabeth Emery (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2014), 239.
[3] Candace Barrington, “Global Medievalism and Translation,” in Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 195.
[4] Nadia Altschul, “On the Shores of Nationalism: Latin American Philology, Local Histories and Global Designs,” La Corónica 35, no. 2 (2007): 169.