Friday, May 04, 2007

Infinite Realms and Alternate Worlds

The day will come when I will be ruled ineligible for that endowed chair I have my eye on because my blog posts about office chairs with bungee cords reveal a disagreeable levity. Oh well. All end of the semester giddiness aside, however, here is the draft of one of my Kalamazoo papers, to be delivered in a session on "Wild Spaces in Medieval Romance." Suggestions very welcome. Sections of it have appeared on this blog previously; sections will also be published as part of a collection of essays I am working on.

Infinite Realms and Alternate Worlds:
Barrows, Portals and Possibility

An alium orbem somniat infinita regna habentem?
[Is he dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number?]
-- William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs, 1.Prologue

Medieval Welsh and Irish texts offer stories of worlds that exist in strange contiguity to everyday life. The Welsh otherworld of Annwn finds its gateway at a mound where adventurers sit to seek wonders. In the Irish story of Cú Chulainn's love for Fand, queen of the sídhe, the hero enters a parallel universe through a nondescript mound of earth. The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn describes the strange beings who inhabit this subterranean world as other than human, differing in their customs, ancient history, potency in magic. Cú Chulainn is "cured" of his self-destructive love for this Fairy Queen only through the intervention of an oblivion spell: he must forget the riches of her world in order to reinhabit his own. Like many Irish and Welsh narratives involving mounds as portals to fay or demonic realms, The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn seems to carry with it an untold story about the belatedness of a people to the land they possess, figuring the territory's earlier inhabitants as an inhuman race whose traces are dwindling, whose presence lingers as if at a dimming twilight.

My paper today begins at a similar mound, now transported into Yorkshire. The twelfth-century historian William of Newburgh described how as a drunken reveler stumbled home one night, he heard song resound from within a tumulus:
A countryman from this hamlet had gone to meet a friend staying in the next village. He was returning late at night a little drunk, when suddenly from a hillock close by ... he heard voices singing, as though people were feasting in celebration (History of English Affairs 1.28)

William assures us that this hill is quite near his own birthplace, and that he has seen it numerous times. On this particular night a door into the mound has opened [in latere tumuli januam patentem] to reveal a celebration in progress:
He approached and looked inside. Before his eyes was a large, well-lit dwelling crowded with men and women reclining at table as at a formal feast. One of the servants noticed him standing at the door, and offered him a cup.

Not the most polite guest, the man pours the drink from its cup and flees on horseback to his village. The revelers pursue him, eager to regain the stolen goblet, but his horse proves too swift for their feet. The cup is described as mysterious all around: "of unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape" [vasculum materiae incognitae, coloris insoliti, et formae inusitate]. In time the splendid cup is given to King Henry, Anglorum regi, as a gift. The object passes from the king of England to his brother-in-law David of Scotland, thence back to England's Henry II. Though the goblet circulates from the mysterious mound to an ordinary Englishman to a succession of regents (Anglo-Norman to Anglo-Scottish to Anglo-Angevin), its path is determined not by some weighty history behind the object, but via the object's agentless status as mere curiosity. The cup of unknown material and inscrutable origin is thereby transformed from the key to another world to a deracinated souvenir of some vaguely exotic elsewhere. The feast once refused recedes from memory, taking with it the history of that community glimpsed within the still mysterious mound.

What would happen, though, if the Yorkshire drunkard had joined the celebration inside the tumulus rather than stolen its tableware and fled? What would have come to pass had he entered into conversation with the subterranean congregants, if one of these revelers had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their table? Whose history would this mound-dweller narrate?

My guess is that this other story, barely glimpsed by a passing English man and narrated as a wondrous fragment by William of Newburgh, would be very different from the history that William otherwise composes, a history that can discern in this fairy mound only a lost tale rather than a living one. Were the celebrants of the underground feast invited to speak, the narrative they would tell would likely reveal the difference between English literature and British literature.

As the twelfth century came to a close, Wales and Ireland no longer posed so fierce a challenge to English dominion. No prospect of renewed internal strife was evident. Edged by barbarian peoples whose land awaited the impress of civilization, England considered itself not only Britain's cultural center, but Britannia itself. Henry of Huntingdon declared blandly that "this most celebrated of islands" might once have been called Albion, might later have been labeled Britain, but was now simply named England. King Arthur begins the century as a mythic Briton, probably embraced in an attempt to inspire Welsh pride, but by its end has been converted into a superbly English monarch.

Yet the "victory of Englishness" over the diversity of the archipelago to which it belonged came at a price. Claiming that Britain was now, simply and straightforwardly, England ensured that the more recent term would always be haunted by its predecessor. The island was, after all, still inhabited by peoples who did not share with the English an identity, history, or political mythology. England, in other words, could never fully Anglicize itself, let alone the island it shared with Wales and Scotland -- or the history it shared with Romans, Britons, Picts, Danes, the Irish. There would always be an archipelago dwelling within England.

For the most part England responded to this living history in the way that most domineering powers respond in the face of ethical complexities, by ignoring them. Yet histories anxiously relegated to silence frequently prove themselves to be like the undead who haunt the halls and barrows of Icelandic sagas: eerily returning in strange forms, relentlessly demanding that the unfinished business they incarnate be acknowledged. Just as in the sagas, moreover, such revenants entered the present moment with disturbing stories about trauma, memory, and the limits of community.

William of Newburgh was a twelfth century writer who composed in the shadow of a formidable tradition of English history writing. Today William's narrative is cited most frequently for his angry condemnation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey was essentially the inventor of king Arthur, and thereby an origin of medieval romance. Geoffrey taught the Middle Ages how to dream of fully realized Otherworlds, and though he composed a history, he helped to engender a new genre.

William of Newburgh, however, had little patience for romance or for proto-romantic history. He wrote that "clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writing about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of the ignorant," 1.Prologue). William's assertion that Geoffrey of Monmouth had been "dreaming some other world containing kingdoms without number" (1.Prologue) is, I would argue, intimately connected to William's narration of the alien feast beneath the English mound. Placed at an epistemic edge, the revelers figure a troubling fact that haunts William's unfolding English history: the lingering presence of aboriginal peoples in a Britain over which England has asserted complete dominion. On the one hand the island had by the end of the twelfth century been so long under a process of forced anglicization that English writers no longer bothered to distinguish between Britain and England; on the other the untimely intrusion of pre-English indigenous presence suggests that, even if the Normans became English, not every difference is so tractable. At once fragments of a fading past and a spectacular embodiment of a living people consigned to mere antiquity, the revelers in the tumulus undermine William's usually confident narration of the English nation.

Like most English writers of his day, William was no lover of the Scots, Irish, or Welsh. They are at best barbarians, at worst a feral people who amount to a national threat. The Scots are described as "thirsting for blood against the English people, through savage barbarity" (1.24; cf. 2.32, 2.34). The natives of Ireland are "uncivilized, and barbarous in their manners, almost totally ignorant of laws and order" (2.26). The Welsh are "a restless and barbarous people" (2.5). These last people, William explains, are
the remnant of the Britons, the first inhabitants of this island, now called England, but originally Britain ... when the Britons were being exterminated by the invading nations of the Angles, such as were able to escape fled into Wales ... and there this nation continues to the present day (2.5)

This passage makes it clear why Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain irritated William of Newburgh so much. William knows that the Welsh are the aborigines of the island; he knows that they once held the whole of Britain, and that they would argue strenuously against his declaration that "Britain" had been superseded by "England." William's rhetorical question ("Is he dreaming another world containing kingdoms without number?" 1.Prologue) is supposed to expose the patent ridiculousness of Geoffrey's narration. Yet it also reveals an anxiety that William implicitly voices through his prolonged condemnation of that author: what if Geoffrey is right? What if British history has not been subsumed into and assimilated by English history? What if Arthur resists conversion into an English king? Could it be that the island of Britain, despite the insistence of William and his contemporaries that it has been renamed and thoroughly Anglicized, what if that island remains so capacious that in fact its territories are rife with other worlds, with kingdoms lacking number?

Romance Spaces
English literature, and specifically romance written in English, betrays some cognizance of this possibility. Romance is replete with what by convention are called, resonantly enough, "Other Worlds." These spaces seem at once impossibly distant and unbearably close, intrusions into the quotidian of alternate realities. Through the portal of this wonderful realm beckons a place where the dreary rules that structure mundane existence are exchanged for eruptions of magic, strange transformations, fabulous wealth, landscapes fashioned of desire and dread. Jeff Rider describes romance other worlds as "dream worlds, wish worlds" ("The Other Worlds of Romance" 122), and we can see immediately what such expanses have in common with Geoffrey of Monmouth's kingdoms without number, with his infinite realms.

The action of the Breton lai "Sir Orfeo" is set into motion by such a dreamer of another world, of a realm without boundary that glimpsed in its fearsome allure. Heurodis falls asleep in a grassy orchard beneath an "ympe-tre" ["grafted tree," a living hybrid] and is snatched away by a radiant host. She beholds a "king o fairy" (283) who wears a crown "nas of silver, no of gold red / Ac it was of a precious ston"(15051) – no doubt William of Newburgh would have described the headpiece as of "unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape." This knightly incarnation of an Other world shows her sights of tremendous beauty, then announces that she must join him forever – not just in spirit, but in body, or that body will torn to fragments.

Though time prevents my analyzing this text at any length, let me offer a few observations. The fairy realm to which Heurodis is abducted is accessed by passing through a rock ("In at a roche the levidis rideth" 347), making it similar to the subterranean worlds envisioned by William of Newburgh, Gerald of Wales (Elidur's kingdom of tiny men), Marie de France (Yonec), as well as those Irish and Welsh mound-portals I mentioned at the beginning of my paper. There seems something quite British (that is, Welsh) about this Otherworld, since it seems to exist in strange contiguity to the England from which Heurodis is abducted. Anglocentric writers like William of Newburgh likewise imagined Wales to be, like all backwards countries as beheld through imperial eyes, locked in an unchanging time. Here bodies injured in war continue to bleed; those who have died are locked perpetually in the agony of their perishing; everyday life yields neither goal nor progress (e.g. when the Fairy King and his retinue go to hunt, they do not seem to pursue any animal, but simply make their mysterious way through the woods). "Sir Orfeo," it should be stressed, is – for all of its 605 lines of fast moving verse – one of the most ambitious colonial projects every launched in English literature, transforming the realm of classical myth into an English world (Orpheus is thus "king / In Inglond" [39-40]; his father and mother are Pluto and Juno; Winchester is shockingly declared the English name for Thrace). Yet perhaps the greatest violence that "Sir Orfeo" does to Britain is to vanish it entirely: like all examples from this quite English genre of writing, this lai claims origin not on the island but in Briatin's near homonym, Brittany (Breteyne), making it seem (as Marie de France does) that the story comes from a direct line of communication between England and an exotic elsewhere across the channel – dooming proximate Wales and a potentially multicultural Britain to oblivious silence.

Chaucer performs a similar set of maneuvers, though perhaps with more subtlety than the author of "Sir Orfeo." Internationally minded and far from jingoistic, Chaucer's works range geographically from Africa to Italy to the Mongol Empire, from heaven (Troilus and Criseyde) all the way to hell ('Friar's Tale'). Yet nearby Wales, Scotland and Ireland are almost entirely absent.

As an adolescent Chaucer was attached to the household of Prince Lionel, second in line for the English crown. As Count of Ulster, Lionel had inherited about half of Ireland through marriage. During his stay on the island in 1366, Lionel presided over a parliament in Kilkenny that issued a statute forbidding English settlers from adopting Irish language, customs, or dress (that is, forbade English assimilation). Even if he never set foot in Ireland, Chaucer was certainly aware throughout his life of the ongoing project of subjugating its population, partly through the promulgation of the very language in which he was composing poetry. Chaucer would also have been well aware of the colonial history of England in Wales, the site of sporadic but intense resistance long after its official conquest had ended in the previous century. He would have been frequently reminded of the fluctuating enmity and alliances that English nobles forged with Scotland, especially because his patron John of Gaunt became so embroiled in Scottish politics.

Chaucer's only avowedly "Celtic" narrative, the Breton lai told by the Franklin, completely ignores the non-English inhabitants with whom the writer shares the island by unfolding in Brittany rather than in nearby Wales. The setting seems especially perverse given that the names of the protagonists (Aurelius, Arveragus, and perhaps Dorigen) are taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, a profoundly influential text that provided the island a rich, pre-English history – and a text that was central to contemporary Welsh nationalism. Like all the Canterbury tales set abroad, moreover, the "speech and customs are thoroughly anglicized," as if the Bretons were Londoners and all the world were England (John Bowers). When the knight Arveragus travels abroad to hone his chivalry, he goes to 'Engelond, that cleped was eek Briteyne' (810), silently granting as ancient fact an equivalence for which only England would argue.

Chaucer's single Arthurian narrative, the 'Wife of Bath's Tale,' implies that this genre so intimately tied to Welsh nationalism is quaint and outdated, as insubstantial as the disappearing elves and fairies that populate its prologue:
In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede. (857-61)

The Britons (i.e. the Welsh) are aligned with the 'olde dayes' of the island (863). The "grene mede" is Chaucer's flattened version of the fairy mound we saw earlier in Ireland and Wales. It is the same mound inside which William of Newburgh's English observer witnessed a feast being celebrated and declined to participate, stealing from its riches but failing to comprehend the history and community behind the artifact.

Likewise, sadly, for Chaucer. "I speke of manye hundred yeres ago," the Wife of Bath declares as she gives her Arthurian romance its temporal setting. "But now kan no man se none elves mo" (863-64): Nowdays no one sees elves any more.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm really enjoying this project (and I like "epistemic edge" quite a bit). I'm sure I'll have more to say later, maybe even something useful, but, for now, all I have are a few minor points.

First, I wondered where the word 'spectral' was in here. I kept thinking of the opening chapter of The Spectral Jew, which you may want to reference directly or indirectly.

Second (and here's the minor) point:
Not the most polite guest, the man pours the drink from its cup and flees on horseback to his village. The revelers pursue him, eager to regain the stolen goblet, but his horse proves too swift for their feet.

Not clear to me from the first sentence that he's stolen the cup. It sounds like he just made a mess and ran. The 'feet' thing in second sentence is odd.

See? Minor. Even petty.

(by the way, for the larger version of this project, you might want to discuss a manuscript I mentioned earlier, one I learned about from Wogan-Browne's recent talk: Bodley, Laud Misc 636, c. 1100-1150, which contains the AS Chronicle (to 1154) but has, in its margins in its last pages, a late 13th-century version of the Livere des reis. Following JWB's brief analysis, you see here an effort to put the histories side by side, not to harmonize them, but to puzzle them out, to demonstrate at once materially and textually that the British and AS (and Anglo-Norman) histories crowd into the same time without being contemporary.)

JKW said...

I like this very much, Jeffrey. I too am struck by the absence of the nearby Celtic world in Chaucer's works, especially given the vigor with which contemporary Welsh literature explores the possibilites of accommodating Welsh/British mythology to medieval political realities. Mediveal Welsh literature is very aware of and concerned with its larger neighbor--and, given the demographics, this is understandable.

In Cyffranc Lludd a Llefelys the center of Britain is determined to be Oxford, Rytychen, which is a literal translation of the English (ford of the oxen, literally). In Branwen the over-king of Britain, Benigeidfran, is specifically described as being invested with the crown of London, and he demands that his head be interred in the White Hill of London when he dies. (Even more specifically, he wants his face pointed towards France.) And, as I posted last summer when I was your guest blogger, the third branch of the Mabinogi displays a nuanced understanding of the English market economy.

I wouldn't say that these Mabinogion references demonstrate an all-consuming Welsh anxiety about England or fixation with all things English--far from it. Instead I'd argue that much medieval Welsh literature is concerned with orienting itself in such a way as to recognize the political contours of mediveal Britain. But, as you demonstrate, the literature of medieval England has no desire to accommodate potentially rival mythologies, and all the accommodating motions of the Welsh were not only rebuffed but flatly ignored.

N50 said...

I would be interested in the moundness of the mounds - but a different paper perhaps. There is still a popular story that the Yorkshire Wolds (which are littered with very prominent burial mounds even today) were so regarded as the home of the dead that they were avoided by the settlements of the living until recent (ie Roman) times. So what fascinates me is the integration of real landscapes into these tales.

My SO (Welsh and nearly with a phd in med. lit) tells me that the Cymreig also had tales of 'folk' living in the earth - and so I wonder about the specifically Welsh/British ness of Newburgh's anxieties. Couldn't get many more specifics out of him - JKW might have some ideas (for SO is now asleep!).

I am fascinated by the Orfeo - would like to hear more about that.

Chaucer? But is he sui generis? Those italianate leanings of his - do they permanently suppress all interest in Britishness among all English writers - I wouldn't have thought so - but them I am no literary scholar - more of a mound scholar...

sorry I will not be there to hear the final paper - I shall be looking out for the virtual K'zoo.

Eileen Joy said...

As Karl writes, yes, thanks for sharing this. It got me thinking, too: okay, as you indicate, these fairy or secret portal worlds may represent "worlds that exist in strange contiguity to everyday life," and ultimately may serve to figure particular aspects of an archipelagan history that is covered over by an "English" nationalist epistemology, BUT, since they appear--these mound dwellings and secret underground social spaces--in various narratives, and are also invested with certain magical properties, does this raise any questions about how the fantasical properties invested in these mound communities points to a cultural investment in the power of a, say, nationalist counter-narrative? Are they like symptoms, let's say, of a not entirely successful repression of otherness?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl: Thanks for catching those infelicities. I caught quite a few more as I re-read the piece over the weekend; I posted it in a drafty state, more so than I thought. The Wogan-Browne sounds on point for the larger project.

JKW: I love this line:
the literature of medieval England has no desire to accommodate potentially rival mythologies, and all the accommodating motions of the Welsh were not only rebuffed but flatly ignored.
That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?

N50: wake that SO up! This is important! But I too am interested in the material object around which (or inside which) the story is told. I started to think about mounds a little in my last book, but it was just the first steps on the path of a longer project. The mounds derive from so many sources (prehistoric, British, Roman, A-S) ... they seem the perpetual reminders of every people's belatedness.

Eileen, you write: does this raise any questions about how the fantasical properties invested in these mound communities points to a cultural investment in the power of a, say, nationalist counter-narrative? Are they like symptoms, let's say, of a not entirely successful repression of otherness?

And I say: yes! That's exactly what I was trying to get at, the mound as the "underground" or unconscious of the anglocentric progress narrative, the stubborn intrusion of an Other past that surfaces what cannot accede to the burgeoning of the nation, or which at least tells a rather different story (about the past, about a possible future).

Anonymous said...

the mound as the "underground" or unconscious of the anglocentric progress narrative, the stubborn intrusion of an Other past that surfaces what cannot accede to the burgeoning of the nation, or which at least tells a rather different story (about the past, about a possible future).

I just want to point out something to think about in advance of my zoo paper.

I like the quoted JJC more than just a little. It demonstrates to me that one can make an interesting theoretically-oriented observation without invoking an allegory like spectrality. (And shame on Karl for trying to inject it.)

The question to think about: what do you gain by more metaphorizing? (Or, in this case, more metaphorizing that others have already done?)

I have an answer or two to that. I hope it generates some debate on Friday.

Karl Steel said...

the mound as the "underground" or unconscious of the anglocentric progress narrative

Do you mean "more metaphorizing" in addition to this topographic unconscious (er, trogloformic unconscious? the geological uncanny?)? What distinguishes this metaphor from spectral metaphors? (at any rate, I wasn't suggesting that JJC jam in that metaphor; it's more that from what I remember the discussion in Kruger's book simply goes well with what JJC is doing here: in other words, I may be simultaneously defending my suggestion and denying that I made it. Very Alberto Gonzales of me).

N50 said...

is mu the same as eb?

And, please, can we read a copy of MU's paper after K'zoo?

Anonymous said...

Karl: Yes.


One metaphor is not as good as another. It would be wrong to play a game where we decide what is a metaphor and what is not, since all language is metaphoric in a basic sense. I would suggest that some metaphors are portable, some are not. Some are invoked to show off, some are not. Some are merely there to satisfy some imaginary reader, some are not. Some are original, some are not. Some are clumsy, some are not.

But, perhaps most pointedly here, some add something (e.g., clarification) to a reading, to a critical observation, and some do not.

It should be difficult to defend the use of a metaphor that is merely accumulative in nature. Your response illustrates this difficulty with respect to "the spectral."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael U: do you want to guest blog your paper here at ITM, before or after K'zoo?

EYYÜP HAN said...

Ywis, what of the tale of the Man of Lawe?

Le Vostre

Karl Steel said...

It should be difficult to defend the use of a metaphor that is merely accumulative in nature

Ah. Well, I won't necessarily defend my spectral suggestion on intellectual grounds, but I can defend it against charges of mere accumulation (a funny word choice given JJC's paper: from here "1490, from L. accumulationem (nom. accumulatio), from accumulare "to heap up in a mass," from ad- "in addition" + cumulare "heap up," from cumulus "heap" (see cumulus)."). JJC's paper touched on a memory, and I made a connection--you might even say a kind of heimlich, affective connection--between his argument and Kruger's discussion of the spectral. Given that the audience for Kruger's work and JJC's work is often coterminous, I thought others experience might want/be able to enjoy the affective pleasures of recognition.

Now, there's an implication in your words, MU, of misrecognition and muddling. I'm happy to take that charge on the chin, but I won't deny that I experienced some kind of homely emotion in reading about the "belatedness of a people to the land they possess, figuring the territory's earlier inhabitants as an inhuman race whose traces are dwindling, whose presence lingers as if at a dimming twilight." I think it's only natural to see in that a connection to the relationship between medieval Christianity and Judaism (or even medieval Christians and Jews). Maybe it's a bad or boring connection, but it's there.

And, yes, Michael U: I second the request for the paper here.

Anonymous said...

As to blogging it: I don't think so, for the reason that the papers may be become a special section of Exemplaria. Emphasis is placed on "may"--this is, as I understand from the good Dr. Joy, only at the preliminary-pre-proposal stage.

But also: Haven't I already blogged it, for chrissakes. Hehehe.

Karl: I appreciate your description of being struck by an affinity between JJC's and Kruger's arguments at an essentially formal (analogic) level. Sure. I wouldn't charge you with misrecognizing, or even making a "boring or bad connection."

Still I would interrogate what you call "natural": I don't doubt it seems thus from the inside, but my argument posits an outside (not merely an outside perspective, but a whole universe). This will, I hope become somewhat clear on Friday. I only have 3 single-spaced pages to work with, but I have pages of notes that I hope will become relevant sometime.

N.B.: My metaphor (doh!) of the inside/outside ain't the old us versus them I trotted out in blunt fashion a year ago. As I shall make clear, this is not about being a part of a discipline or field that can claim some direct effect on the social over against being part of a field that traditionally cannot make such a claim. No, no, it's deeper than that....

Karl Steel said...

Still I would interrogate what you call "natural": I don't doubt it seems thus from the inside, but my argument posits an outside (not merely an outside perspective, but a whole universe

Alright then. Looking forward to it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

MU: looking forward then to the kive version, and hoping for an Exemplarium expansion.

Karl: thanks for the etymological excursus, which is in fact very suggestive. I think I know Kruger's book so well that it is impossible for me NOT to be haunted by his use of spectrality, esp. given the subject matter (as you point out: 2 disappeared but not absent peoples).

GC: Absolutely right! I love the detail of the Briton book that Constance's attacker must swear upon, an acknowledgment that English Christianity is belated ... in the longer version of the essay (I will begin my paper by saying "I have a 100 page version of this paper at home in which all questions are answered and all lacunae filled") I treat all Chaucer's uses of the words Briton and fairy (so that brings in the Squire's Tale as well).

Anonymous said...

This goes in a different direction from the general current of this discussion, but I'd be interested in hearing what you (or any other participants here) make of the sad tone of the WBT's opening. What does the excursus on the encroachment of modern (14c) urban life and its displacement of "fayreye" suggest about whatever--or whoever--inhabited "this land...many hundred yeeres ago"? (I don't have my Riverside to hand, so excuse my spelling.)

C Clarke said...

I'm currently working on these same stories in William of Newburgh (alongside other texts of the 'Anarchy' in the Peterborough Chronicle and John of Worcester's Chronicle), and Jeffrey was kind enough to send me his lecture on the Green Children. I've also really enjoyed reading the 'Infinte Realms' piece here, which very persuasively links the Green Children story into the other supernatural narratives in the following chapter.

I've been reading these texts as responses to the traumatic events of the 12th-century Anarchy, and have found modern 'trauma theory' to be a particularly productive interpretative tool. There's a clear acknowledgement in texts like PeteChron that the Anarchy has involved events and experiences which are beyond language / narrative, and I'm interested in how that unreachable experience of trauma is represented (in displaced or metaphorical terms) in contemporary literature.

The supernatural stories in William of Newburgh display classic features of 'trauma writing' - narratives of reality disturbed or disrupted by experience beyond the grasp of reason; patterns of replay and repetition (here the recurrent motifs of failed normalisation / suppression / containment); and the development of narrative form itself as the central focus (see Kali Tal's comments on how traumatic events 'are written and rewritten until they become codified and narrative form gradually replaces content as the focus of attention').

As with many of William's supernatural stories - revenants, vampires etc - I think the particular *place* of these narratives in his History are relevant. So I think there is a direct resonance between the stories in Chapters 27 and 28 and the surrounding account of the Anarchy.

Anyway, although I don't read these stories from exactly the same perspective as Jeffrey, I find his ideas very compelling and convincing and we're both clearly in agreement in terms of motifs of suppression / repression etc here.

I'm just finishing up my own paper before its delivery deadline on May 16th - and will then send it on to Jeffrey has promised!

PS This is the first time I've ever got excited (or brave) enough to post a comment on a blog. I hope the technical side works - and thanks again for sharing such interesting ideas.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for posting, and I wish you (a representative you, I'm afraid) didn't think it took bravery to post here. What it takes is a keen ability to procrastinate. As I'm doing now.

I've been reading these texts as responses to the traumatic events of the 12th-century Anarchy

Your project sounds interesting (and I think our Uebel will have something to say about trauma), but I wonder about the Anarchy as such. After Kzoo, you may wish to look at David Crouch's recent book, The Birth of Nobility. Now, whether or not there was an Anarchy in a material sense has little to do with its discursive existence, both in contemporary and postmedieval historiography.

Perhaps you'd like to post your paper here? I mean, after the 16th (or its public delivery, whichever comes later).

Karl Steel said...

That's page 198 in the Crouch where, no doubt, his stupendously rich footnotes will lead you somewhere. Funny enough, my search for 'Anarchy' (of the 12th-century variety) in my database also gives me page 44 in JJC's 'Flow of Blood' Speculum article.

N50 said...

The first 7 pages of Crouch's Reign of King Stephen also do the job - laying the 'invention' plainly at the door of Stubbs' nineteenth-century statism.

C Clarke said...

Gosh - this comment-posting business gets a lot easier once you've dipped the first toe in!

Thanks to Karl Steel and n50 for the comments. I'm familiar with Crouch's work and realise it's not very fashionable (amongst historians, at least) to talk about the 'Anarchy', but I agree that what's important isn't what 'really happened' but the representation of the period by contemporary writers. Writers like William of Newburgh unquestionably regard the Anarchy as Anarchic, and it becomes a really interesing focus for writing violence, disorder and trauma.

There's no 'after Kzoo' for me, as I'm not going this year (long way from Swansea, Wales!), but at least this means I'm free to get straight on with pondering all these interesting theories and readings.

I'll let you know what happens with the paper.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I've got one foot out the door for Kalamazoo, and I should be grading Chaucer exams, but I want to thank C. Clark for the smart comments -- and say that I am very much looking forward to the paper.

On Crouch and the Anarchy as myth, see also his biography of King Stephen. BUT I'm not sure Crouch's debunking of what has become modern doxa about the anarchy ought to be taken too far in specific cases: there clearly were moments of trauma during Stephen's reign, and works like the Gesta Stephani and PeteChron surely record some of it (though not of course dispassionately). In fact I'd also add the Life of St William of Norwich to that list, esp. because some it uncannily echoes the Pete Chron -- e.g., a miracle story that takes us inside the dungeon of a castle, the same horrid space given the Poe treatment in the PeteChron.

Anonymous said...

As an historian I do not fully agree with Crouch either - Paul Dalton - in his study of Yorkshire - takes a rather different and less respectful view of the activities of the northern nobility, great and small. The difficulty is the lack of evidence - but on the whole I prefer Dalton's arguments.

And can I join the others in being enthusiastic about your line CC?

Anonymous said...

On trauma, I have to come to like this more than the work produced by the crowd (Caruth, LaCapra, Felman, Friedlander, et al.)that followed in the wake of 1980--when the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

Trauma and Symbolism. (Monograph V of the Kris Study Group of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.): Edited by Herbert F. Waldhorn, M.D. and Bernard D. Fine, M.D. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1974.

The book makes reference to Susanne Langer (and I heartily recommend looking up her work), yet fails to make the crucial distinction that she has so well articulated between signs and symbols, between that which represents and that which is a vehicle for the conception of an object. So, becuase there is a certain confounding of sign and symbol, the book separates itself a bit intellectually from any of the current literature both within and outside of psychoanalysis on the symbolic process, the role of symbols in linguistics, and the development of the symbolizing capacity. That said, I would have a look-see.

Karl Steel said...

I agree that what's important isn't what 'really happened' but the representation of the period by contemporary writers.

More than that, if there isn't "actually" anarchy (whatever that means in this context), and if there's nevertheless a historiographical expression of trauma, it's far, far more interesting than a simple cause and effect relation between events and records of events.