Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Writing, Race and Nation

This semester I've been teaching a graduate seminar with the above title. The course description runs as follows:
This seminar will explore what could be called "the archipelago of England." The texts examined reveal how a united, anglophone kingdom emerged in the Middle Ages and dominated the entirety of the isle of which it was but a single part. This seemingly homogenous nation was haunted by the multicultural and polyglot Britain it supposedly superseded. Primary sources are medieval, and are especially chosen to defeat contemporary expectations about the biology of race and the ontology of nations. They will also provide useful historical grounding for students working on more contemporary projects. Special emphasis will be paid to the hard work of producing "England" (and the many points at which failure loomed); the colonization of the Celtic Fringe in its racializing effects; the paradoxes of anti-Semitism; and the complex role of religion and other transnational identifications in solidifying recalcitrant nationalisms.

My students are bright and the readings -- though tough for many of them -- have sparked some bracing discussions.

So far my favorite new (to me) reading has been Orkeyinga Saga. This thirteenth-century text, composed in Iceland, attempts to imagine a world without race. There is a great scene towards the beginning when Hrolfr, the "Rollo" who founded the Normans, is conveniently absented from a discussion of Orkney's future because, it seems, that future cannot have some definitive collective identity attached to it. The first earl of Orkney is therefore the slave-born, truculent Einar. The people of Orkney and their earls are all about provisional, shifting, and transnational identifications. There isn't much of what William Chester Jordan called the "intense localism" of many medieval texts, perhaps because these islands are so caught up in the shifting politics of the Hebrides, Denmark, Norway, England, Ireland, Wales.

I'm attempting in this class to pair our medieval discussions with some postcolonial theorizing of island identities; most of this theory is, naturally enough, drawn from the study of the Caribbean. That insular impulse meant that Orkeyinga Saga was read alongside José F. Buscaglia-Salgado's Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean, a book of which I'm very fond. Buscaglia-Salgado's work is all about the spaces between racial identities. His attempt to think "in less racially bipolar terms" resonated well with a medieval saga that ignores the grandiose claims of any communal designation that proclaims itself historically stable, trading such fantasies for ad hoc and mutable alliances.

Or, to return to those lines from King Lear we were arguing over some time ago, "Now gods stand up for bastards!"

My syllabus is below, for anyone who is interested. Missing from it are my own ad hoc introductions -- e.g. we also looked closely at texts like the AAA Statement on Race and some medical work on race's (non)existence.

Schedule of Readings

Sept. 5 English Literature, British History
R. R. Davies, The British Isles 1100-1500: "In Praise of British History"
Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective: "From Columbus's machine to the sugar-making machine"

Sept. 12 The Making of Race
*Gayle Wald, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture: "Introduction: Race, Passing, and Cultural Representation"
Thomas Hahn, "The Difference the Middle Ages Makes"; Robert Bartlett, "Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity"; William Chester Jordan, "Why 'Race'?" (all these essays are found in Journal of Medieval and early Modern Studies 31.1 [20001], available via Project MUSE)

Sept. 19 Insular Spaces
Adomnan of Iona, Life of Saint Columba
*Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: "Introduction: The Postcolonial Middle Ages?"; Chapter One (all); Chapter Four: "Closing the Black Atlantic Circle"; "Conclusion"
*Kathy Lavezzo, Angels on the Edge of the World: "Introduction: Modern Motherland and Ancient Otherworld"

Sept. 26 Birth of a Nation [optional 3 page paper due]
Age of Bede: "Life of Cuthbert," "Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow," "Voyage of St Brendan"
Nicholas Howe, "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England" (Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34 [2004], available via PROJECT MUSE)
Eileen Joy, "Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists!"

Oct. 3 Alfred and the Idea of Nation
Alfred the Great: Asser, The Life of King Alfred; "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle"; "From the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care"; "Extracts from the Laws of King Alfred"; The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum"
*Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: "New Barbarians and New Romans"
*Kathleen Davis, "National Writing in the Ninth Century" (Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 [1998] 611-37)

Oct. 10 Archipelago and Island
Orkeyinga Saga
*José F. Buscaglia-Salgado, Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean: "Introduction" "Bartolomé de Las Casas at the End of Time"

Oct. 17 We Have Never Been Precolonial
Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul
Gildas, The Ruin of Britain [any version or Medieval Sourcebook download:]
*Peter S. Wells, The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered peoples Shaped Roman Europe: "Natives and Romans" "Conclusion"

Oct. 24 Insular Itineraries
Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
*Monika Otter, Inventiones: "Underground Treasures: The 'Other Worlds' of William of Malmesbury, William of Newburgh and Walter Map" and "Quicksands: Gerald of Wales on Reading"

Oct. 31 Seven page "problem" paper and annotated bibliography due

Nov. 7 Translation and Transformation
Marie de France, Lais
*from Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance

Nov. 14 Anglicization
Middle English Breton Lais: "Sir Orfeo" "Sir Degaré" "Sir Launfal" "Sir Gowther"
*R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343: "'Sweet Civility' and 'Barbarous Rudeness'" "The Anglicization of the British Isles"

Nov. 21 Arthur, King of Britain England
Wace and Laymon, Arthurian Chronicles
*Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman, King Arthur and the Myth of History: "The Romance of Empire: Vernacular History and the Structuration of Power" and "Discontinuous Time: History in the Eyes of Its Losers"

Nov. 28 Nation, Cosmos and Polis
John Mandeville, Travels
Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: "Eye on the World: Mandeville's Pleasure Zones; or, Cartography, Anthropology, and Medieval Travel Romance"

Dec. 5 Project Presentations


JKW said...

A united, anglophone kingdom, eh? Not so in Cornwall, where the Cornish language persisted straight through into the early modern period. Mark Stoyle, in a great piece about Cornish identity in the Tudor and Stuart periods ("The Dissidence of Despair: Rebellion and Identity in Early Modern Cornwall") writes that Roger Williams took to referring to the Cornish and Irish as "Indians" (!) and that the Cornish, for their part, referred to the English as Saxons ("Sawson," like the Welsh "Saesneg").

Granted, I'm being a nitpicking pedantic, but England proper in the Middle Ages was home not just to the various dialects of English plus Norman French, but also to Cornish, a Celtic language that boasted quite the corpus of literature and drama. And if Lisa Simpson and I have our way, no one will forget it!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

True, true, true! The course tries to debunk some of England's own mythology about itself (and especially about its homogeneity) -- so "united, anglophone kingdom" really does depend upon (1) a slanted point of view and (2) blinders.

Anonymous said...

Wow... how timely. I'm teaching book three of Spenser's FQ, and a student of mine just asked if it matters that Arthegall, Britomart's love, is a Cornish prince!

where to begin...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I would begin with an essay JKW once sent me: "The Dissidence of Despair: Rebellion and Identity in Early Modern Cornwall" by Mark Stoyle (Journal of British Studies 38. 4 1999, pp.423-44).

It's an excellent piece.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I don't think you're being a nitpicking pedant, JKW--the monograph I'm finishing (within the next month) looks at writing and performance in medieval and early modern Cheshire and argues something similar. I.e., that "England" is itself a fiction (albeit a powerful one) that papers over a variety of preexisting regional differences.

The dissertation version of this project made it into one of the footnotes in JJC's Speculum article on Norwich. If I'm lucky and the book gets published, maybe a chapter can make its way into JJC's syllabus the next time he teaches the class.

(Which I would have loved to have taken as a grad student.)

JKW said...


Great that you mention Chesire--I was just flipping through a collection about "Celticism" (another loaded term), and the epilogue made the excellent point that outside the so-called Celtic homelands and the couple of overseas Celtic areas (Cape Breton and the Welsh bit of Argentina), we're left with Cheshire, Lancashire, and parts of northern Spain, regions of "Celtic heritage" that have vexed relationships to the larger nations of which they're part. The north-west of England looms large in my mind as a space caught somewhere between the Celtic and the English, and I wonder what work will be done in years to come about English regional variance and how the parts of England beyond the Home Counties are considered "English."

I look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

Karl Steel said...

Rob, a bit of blegging: I've read Edwin Norris's Ancient Cornish Drama, which, as you surely know, is about 150 years old. Any more recent editions of this stuff? Perhaps in your current project?


JJC: I posted my most new post before I read this one, as my browser was so jammed up, I guess, that I couldn't read the recent posts here. Oddly, they seem to speak to each other.

Eileen Joy said...

You put a blog entry on a syllabus? The world is, indeed, changing. Thanks, too, by the way for putting together a really cool course the rest of us can rip off, as I plan to do next fall. I wonder if, for the purposes of this course, you would want to look at the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins's book "Islands of History"? The chapter, "Other Times, Other Customs: The Anthropology of History" would be particularly apt, I think [we almost included this in "The Postmodern Beowulf," but JJC's suggestion to incorporate an essay by Alfred Siewers, "Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac's Mound and Grenderl's Mere as Expressions of Anglo-Saxon Nation-Building" pushed it out].