Saturday, June 30, 2007

Little Quote of the Day: Fetchez la vache

Been quiet around these parts. Here's a placeholder QOTD to supplement our various posts on heterogeneity and the English past (for example, here and here).

While browsing in a library, I ran across Bernard Ribémont's modern French translation of Jean Corbechon's Middle French version of Bartholomew the Englishman's De proprietatibus rerum. My curiosity did not disappoint me when I wondered what Jean would have to say about England.

We have the usual descriptions of England taken from Bede, but then Jean hits a snag: a wild praise of England as a land so rich that it needs nothing from other lands, a land whose people are generous, honest, fun loving, and then--you can just see him throwing his quill down in disgust--he declares that there's just too much to summarize and that the work praises England rather too much. It is 1372, after all. He then writes:
... il croit louer son pays et, en fait, il le blâme, car il dit que les Anglais descendent des Géants tout d'abord, puis de Brutus et des Troyens, enfin des Saxons. En disant ainsi, il en fait des bâtards en leur donnant plusieurs pères. Et puis il parle très imparfaitement de cette question, car il oublie la conquête faite par le duc Guillaume et les Normands, qui conquirent l'Angleterre si vaillamment qu'il en reste encore les traces dans les armoiries et les coutumes. Cela ne doit par être oublié, car il y a moins de honte à avoir été conquis par les Français ou les Normands que par les Saxons. (238)

He believes that he is praising his country, and in fact, he is scorning it, because he says that the English descended from giants first of all, then from Brutus and the Trojans, and then finally from the Saxons. In saying so, he makes them bastards by giving them several fathers. Moreover, he speaks very imperfectly on this issue, because he forgets the conquest of Duke William and the Normans, who conquered England so valiantly that there are still traces [of the conquest? of the Normans?] in the heraldry and customs of England. This should not be forgotten because there is less shame in having been conquered by the French or the Normans than by the Saxons.
(image taken from here)

Postscript: ALK just asked me, "Are there medieval accounts of boring people? Like some monk writing about another monk who was really boring." I had to say that I didn't know. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Quote of the Day

From today's reading, quite relevant to ongoing discussions here, here, here, and here:
One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it has not always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one's own birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one's own ruin--which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures. How can one love otherwise than in this finitude? Where else would the right to love, even the love of law, come from?

Derrida, "Force of Law," Acts of Religion 278.


Gibbous Moon, London
The hum of cars, the cool of night, and a gibbous moon linger at the window.
I lay in a small bed in a small room in an unfamiliar city,
drowsed by the hum, contented by the breeze, disquieted by the moon.
I have walked the streets of London.
I have tasted what wine the city offers --
tasted too much of the good wine.
Today I climbed the dome of St paul's
and seeing the crowd undistinguished from the floor tiles
thought I knew a god's eyes.
Today I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
I had read the play once and thought Brilliant.
This day I have seen a city that swallows its astonished pilgrims
into green parks and streets that glow all night.
But the gibbous moon is draining the wine
And the sober beams remind me how much I paid the priest at the cash register
for that climb up the dome.
The rays recollect how bored I was during that play
and how angry I grew at myself for being bored in the midst of brilliance.
For all the color, for all the music, for all the marvel,
there were shabby sleepers in doorways
and others sifting the refuse.
Rising from the bes, I cross to the window,
pull down the dirty glass,
and draw the fading curtains.
London, gibbous moon.

Ah, London. It brings out the failed poet in all of us.

I composed these wretched lines twenty years ago. In the summer that separated the end of undergraduate study from the beginning of a doctoral program, I found myself on a humid night a tenant of a decrepit London hotel. As an aspiring teacher, I'd been awarded a small amount of money to pursue something educational and research-oriented in these months, so I decided to buy a plane ticket and backpack through as much of the British Isles as three months and my limited funds would allow.

I arrived in London filled with all the fantasies of the place an American English major could possess. From my study of Chaucer I learned to expect a cosmopolitan bustle; from Dickens some picturesque poverty; from Samuel Johnson a city of dreams. London turned out to be far more than the museum of distant literature I'd expected, alive with a vibe in many ways more modern than many American cities (and certainly much more contemporary in its ardors than Boston, where I grew up). London was also far more marked by its colonial past than I had anticipated. This was 1987, after all, and England was smarting from racial violence, anti immigrant sentiment, IRA bombs in the subway. Somehow everything seemed less romantic and more difficult than my books had led me to believe.

But, you know, two decades ago I was pretty much an idiot. My family had not been well off enough to travel internationally -- in fact, we barely traveled locally. I hadn't experienced many big cities other than Boston, Toronto, and New York. London, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were imagined geographies, places I'd studied in my literature and history and political science classes but locales more abstract than real, historical rather than possessed of a vivacious present.

Despite the effusions of poor poetry the trip triggered, a lasting positive outcome of that sojourn is this: meandering through the isles and wandering especially through London cured me of wanting to keep the past a monumentally still domain. If the London of 1987 could be possessed of so much vitality, shouldn't the London of 1387 be granted just as much ambivalence, joy, danger, messiness? I suppose I was fairly late in coming to this lesson, but I've always suspected that late bloomers are the ones who learn best.

I've returned to London frequently over the years and watched in wonder as the city has changed. Whenever I'm there I also can't help encountering the me of two decades ago, usually wandering some dusky street in Bloomsbury with his own portable cloud of gloom. If I could just touch that phantom, I'd grab him and shake him and tell him to snap out of his unearned melancholy. But then again, I'm happy that the ghosts of former selves have to remain as they are. They mustn't realize the future selves congregating around them, or it would be trouble for all of us.

This year for the first time the family is joining me on my London research junket. We've rented a flat not far from the British Museum for a few weeks. My wife lived in London as a student, and other than a week we spent there together in 2002 hasn't been back since. Kid #1 has been eagerly anticipating this trip for (according to him) his ENTIRE life (that would be ten years). Talk about former selves: he's a better adjusted version of me at that age, filled with enthusiasm for castles and dungeons and relics. He can hardly wait to be able to touch as solid objects the fortifications he's only dreamt about so far. Kid #2 likewise knows London only through books, and likewise feels quite confident that she will encounter the city as those books inform her it should be. Primarily this means that she KNOWS Peter Pan will appear by her bedside some evening to escort her past Big Ben skyward into Never Land. She has had a pink nightgown set aside for this trip for over two months. She realizes that you must be wearing a nightgown to be invited to Never Land.

So expect few postings from me in the future. I return on Friday July 13th (luckily I am not superstitious), but even then I anticipate being so slammed by work upon my return that it will be tough to blog. I will drop a note or two from London, though ... and promise not to compose any more poetry. Only Young Me did that. He was so sweet in his dire little way -- but Old Me will likely slap him if he catches him speaking of hunchbacked lunar bodies again.

Happy summer, and love to all.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Frontpaging the Future

In this comment thread, Sylvia Huot asked a question that goes to the heart of the kind of thinking we attempt here at ITM: how to intertwine meditation upon past and future while retaining some confidence that we are doing justice to history? She writes:
JJC said: 'The British Isles have been home to sophisticated peoples for millennia. We're still decoding the complicated messages they sent into a future so distant that they could not possibly have imagined it, a megalithic version of the Long Now. So add this to our list of humanisms: the enduring desire to send beyond the horizon of our own mortality messages to be received and interpreted by future peoples whom we want to know that we lived, we were here, we did something in this land and at this time.'

What I want to know is--how do you know that they had the desire you mention? How can you know they were thinking anything of the sort? They may, of course, have been thinking that way, but just because a culture has produced a monument that survives thousands of years later doesn't necessarily mean that they consciously intended to do so. For all we know, they may have built Stonehenge because they thought the world was about to end and they wanted a place to gather together when that happened. Or they may have trusted that if the place was ever inhabited by a different race of people, the stones would fall down and the monument would disappear, so as not to be desecrated by being viewed by the non-understanding Other. Who's to say? I don't feel entirely confident that the builders of Stonehenge would welcome our presence there today, any more than I feel confident that the medieval fellows of my college would welcome MY presence here today if they could have foreseen it (a woman, from a place they didn't know existed?) I don't mean to cause trouble, nor is any of that a reason for us not to engage in the time-travel of historical study, nor does it mean that our presence in those places is in any way illegitimate; we live now, not then. I just think that engaging with the past is tricky business.
I replied:
It's a great question, Sylvia. Thanks for posing it.

Believe me, "How do we know their desires?" is something I've thought about; in fact my current project is in part about the process, medieval as well as modern, of dreaming those desires.

Here is what is undeniable (I believe): whatever groups instigated the construction of vast, perdurable architectures like Stonehenge -- as well as many earthworks and other symbolic reconfigurations of the terrain -- knew that they could not possibly live to see the project to completion. To erect something as massive as Stonehenge is to face your mortality; it can't be started unless you can imagine time long beyond your own demise. Otherwise you would build something out of wood (and obviously many peoples living in Britain at this time took that route, and by chance post marks endure to tell us that fact). That way you'd still be alive to see the results, or at least some of them.

With projects that take generations to complete, how can you NOT be sending a message into a future that does not include your mortal presence?

Massive projects require the leap beyond the horizon of your own death. They have to be a message to someone who comes after, and very often to someone who comes LONG after. That person isn't "us" -- as you say, how could the builders have wanted that? But if we can at least grant that the architects of old possessed a decent set of wits, they knew from experience that the present isn't eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain ... and can't we imagine, without too much of a leap of faith, that a project like Stonehenge is sent into that future in part to stabilize it, but in part also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it?

I'd also want to emphasize what is truly remarkable about a building project that takes several human life spans to complete: it cannot be an ad hoc, day by day labor, but takes planning that exceeds human time and mortal duration. That fact has vast significance when thinking about these architectures, especially in their design for long endurance. It tells us nothing about specific intent, I suppose -- i.e., it won't let us know whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or a ceremonial ground or whatever -- but it will remind us that such architectures that from their start have inhabited a future more than a present reveal an ancient and enduring human desire.

I wonder, though, if anyone has more thoughts about this subject, since its seems germane to to so many of our conversations.

ITM Book Club: Heather Blurton on Cannibalism

Oprah can do it. Why can't we medievalists?

Announcing the first meeting of the In the Middle Book Club for Discerning Scholars of Medieval Arcana (ITMBC4DSoMA, for short). As voted upon below, we will be conducting a group read and communal blogging of Heather Blurton's brand new book Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature. Details of the book below. Secure your copy now, lug it to the beach all summer (what could be tastier than reading about cannibalism while surrounded by all that flesh?), and check back with us in about a month as we start discussion.


From Beowulf through the literature of the crusades and beyond, cannibals haunt the texts of medieval England. Cannibal Narratives attempts to explain their presence. It explores the relationship between the literary trope of cannibalism and the emergence of national identity in medieval England. If England suffered three centuries of invasion - beginning with the Vikings and continuing through Danish and Norman conquests of the island – it also developed a unique and uniquely literary response to these circumstances. This book reads the representations cannibalism so common in English medieval literature through cannibalism’s metaphoric associations with incorporation, consumption, and violent disruption of the boundaries between self and other. The result uncovers the ways in which these representations articulate a discourse of cannibalism as a privileged mode for thinking about English cultural, and ultimately national, identity in the face of the social crisis.

Author Bio
Heather Blurton is Lecturer in the Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of English at the University of York

Praise for Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature
“Organized around the unsettlingly frequent appearance of the figure of the cannibal and scenes of cannibalism in a wide assortment of texts produced in England between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, this book deeply explores the connections between literary representation and the processes of imperial conquest, territorial consolidation, and internal colonization that marked the continuous history of medieval England both before and after 1066. This book will immediately establish Blurton as a major voice in one of the most interesting conversations taking place in contemporary medieval studies. Blurton's study joins the ranks of those medievalists whose work is currently effacing the sharp divide that has separated the early from the later Middle Ages and ‘medieval alterity’ from modernity.”--Robert M. Stein, Purchase College and Columbia University

Table of contents
Cannibal Narratives * Selfeaters: The Cannibal Narrative of Andreas * Eotonweard: Watching for Cannibals in the Beowulf-manuscript * Cannibal Kings: Communion and Community in Twelfth-Century England * Tartars and Traitors: The Uses of Cannibalism in Matthew Paris’s Chronica majora * The Flesch of a Sarazeyn: Cannibalism, Genre and Nationalism

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mute Beasts

I cited some of my work on Cynocephali in this thread and felt compelled to share some more on dog-headed monsters. Does this have anything to do with our recent interests: wonder, privacy, cosmopolitanism, and the heterogeneity of the past? Perhaps not; you may wish to consider what follows only as a parenthesis.


In a tradition epitomized by Isidore of Seville, to the degree that Cynocephali bark, they lack language, therefore resemble animals, and are likely only animals. Isidore wrote that Cynocephalic barking “magis bestias quam homines confitetur” (reveals them to be more beasts than men), and the eighth-century Liber monstrorum, which emphasizes its monsters' inhumanity, describes Cynocephalic speech as “contaminated” or “perverted” by barking ("Cynocephali quoque in India nasci perhibentur, quorum sunt canina capita, et omne uerbum quod loquuntur intermixtis corrumpunt latratibus"): their voices, as much as their bodies, are contaminated to the degree that they are canine. The thirteenth-century Old French moralized translation of the section on monsters in Thomas of Cantimpré's De naturis rerum similarly observes that Cynocephali “com chien glatisent…/ mes sens de gens est lors savoirs” (489-90; bark like dogs, but have human sense): with the conjunction “mes,” it's clear that barking occludes or opposes the human qualities Cynocephali possess.

The depiction of Cynocephali (labelled "gigantes") on the Hereford Mappamundi seems to belong to this tradition. It is unclear, however, whether the map depicts only barking, which would, following the Isidorian model, demonstrate speechlessness and hence inhumanity; or speech, human by definition; or something for which neither the teratologic tradition nor traditions of natural history normally account: barking that is intelligible as speech to the Cynocephali but not to humans. After all, these Cynocephali face each other and look as though they are communicating. If the barking of the Liber monstrorum and the Hereford map is not opposed to sense, but is rather language evidencing sense, the “mes” of the moralized bestiary should perhaps be an “et”: barking would not be a contamination, but only another mode of communicating. If Cynocephalic barking can be a kind of language, then by the same token humans might reconsider other animals’ noises as potentially linguistic, though incomprehensible to humans. In that case, a key justification of the human subjugation of animals—the animal absence of language, frequently advanced as evidence of animal irrationality—might no longer obtain: if barking could be speech, the world of animals might either be a world of language or, just as confusingly, a world in which creatures or species must be individually assessed for the possession of language. In such a world, the previously homogeneous, predictable irrationality of animals gives way to uncertainty.

Granted, some medieval theories of language allowed for some manner of animal language: Roger Bacon observes that “gallina aliter garrit cum pullis suis quando invitat eos ad escam et quando docet eos cavere a milvo” (hens prattle to each other with their chicks when they summon them to eat and when they teach them to beware the kite), and Abelard allowed that dogs might intend different meanings with different barks. In each case, however, medieval theorists of language would still reserve something exclusively for the human, such as the power of abstraction.

But the gestures of the Hereford image are not the gestures of mere animals; they are not engaged in the merely instrumental communication through which hens share food or warn against predators; rather, their postures suggest intellectual work or at least conviviality among nonhuman mortal creatures. In response to this suggestion, the only recourse to establish or reestablish Cynocephalic animality would be simply, regardless of evidence, to declare them nonhuman. But such a declaration, effective as it might be, also declares the ineffectiveness of relying on animal noise to classify Cynocephali—or indeed any nonhuman creature—as animal. The only certainty is the cold comfort of a chauvinist tautology: if Cynocephalic barking is inhuman, it is because humans declare it to be so.

Sources Used and Essential Works on Cynocephali apart from Friedman

Eco, Umberto, R. Lambertini, C. Marmo, and A. Taborroni, “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs,” in Umberto Eco and Costantino Marmo, eds., On the Medieval Theory of Signs, Foundations of Semiotics 21 (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins, 1989).

Hilka, Alfons, ed., Eine altfranzösische moralisierende Bearbeitung des Liber de monstruosibus hominibus orientis aus Thomas von Cantimpré, De naturis rerum, Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen 7 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1933).

Lecouteux, Claude. “Les Cynocéphales: Étude d’une tradition tératologique de l’Antiquité au XIIe s.” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 24 (1981): 117-29.

Newall, Venetia.”The Dog-Headed Saint Christopher,” in Folklore on Two Continents: Essays in Honor of Linda Dégh, ed. Linda Dégh, et al. (Bloomington: Trickster Press, 1980).

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, Rev. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Westrem, Scott D., The Hereford Map: A Transcription and Translation of the Legends with Commentary, Terrarum Orbis (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001).

White, David Gordon. Myths of the Dog-Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lindow Man, Stonehenge, British Prehistory

One of my research projects for London this year involves the presentation of prehistory both in the Middle Ages and today. I'll be visiting the revamped prehistory gallery at the British Museum, about which I found this review in The Guardian. There's quite a bit here about how dreaming prehistory opens a window onto the present. Jonathan Jones writes about encountering the sacrificial victim known as Lindow Man, discovered in the peat bog which preserved the agony of his death:
When we look at Lindow Man, we are looking at the present, not the past. This man's death is happening now, before your eyes, you can see him suffer. His face has the power of some howling horror mask painted by Rubens, but pain and time, not art, made this. The way the skin has aged in its peat prison enhances, rather than confuses, the man's contorted features. His eyes are clenched and lowered in infinite sadness, his neck bent so his head rests hopelessly on his chest, as if in final surrender. He gives up the ghost as they take him out to kill him. And killed he was: around his throat is the tight cord that was used to garrotte him, left tied around his torn neck when they threw him in the bog. When the bog man was forensically examined, this turned out to be just one of the brutalities perpetrated on him. First, his head was savagely beaten, then he was garrotted, then his throat was cut. In his stomach was a last meal of wheaten griddle cakes and mistletoe. That last item betrays his killers - and they're still around.

Happy summer solstice, indeed. There's also a nice riff in the article on how dreaming prehistory as an Other World can do some anticolonial work:

Like today's archaeologists who argue that Britain had its own sophisticated culture before the Roman invasion, [18th- century archaeologist William] Stukeley was an anti-imperialist. In arguing that all Britain's megalithic art was created by the druids, he turned Roman propaganda on its head, since they claimed their conquest of Britain was justified to suppress this supposedly savage religious order. "An incalculable debt is owed to the Romans who destroyed their monstrous practices," wrote Pliny the Elder. The first Roman observer of the druids, Julius Caesar, was not only a great general but a pungent writer: his own account of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain is still sensational reading not least because of what he says about the druids. He accuses them of human sacrifice: sometimes they even put their victims inside a gigantic wicker man, he says, and burned them alive.

Stukeley turned the savage druids described by Caesar, Pliny and other Roman writers into philosopher-bards; indeed, Caesar admits the druids held long discussions about the nature of the universe. For an 18th-century radical like William Blake, the druids and Stonehenge represent a lost British utopia, and the tradition lives at the solstice.

We now know, of course, that Stonehenge is far more ancient than the druids. Yet we academics are still taking part in Stukeley's mission: arguing that the societies of the distant past were not less complex than contemporary ones, that they (like us) mixed their barbarism with artfulness and achievement. The British Isles have been home to sophisticated peoples for millennia. We're still decoding the complicated messages they sent into a future so distant that they could not possibly have imagined it, a megalithic version of the Long Now. So add this to our list of humanisms: the enduring desire to send beyond the horizon of our own mortality messages to be received and interpreted by future peoples whom we want to know that we lived, we were here, we did something in this land and at this time.

Medieval and Early Modern Seminar

Some of you may be interested in this proposal I put together with some colleagues for a new Medieval and Early Modern seminar at GW. It will take as its focus Europe in a transnational frame.

So much of our life as faculty is devoted to chasing down scarce grant money that I know I always appreciate it when someone shares a model for how to frame a project in a way that makes it appealing to those outside the field. We are seldom judged by experts within our disciplines when we apply for the Fulbright, ACLS, NEH and so on, so personally I've found it essential to study successful applications before sending off my own.

You may access the proposal here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Snazzy new look, same dull content

Don't be discombobulated! At least not more so than usual. We are weaning ourselves off the uninspired template and -- with no web design skills at all!!! -- attempting a new look.

Let us know what you think. More changes to follow.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reader poll

Your three co-bloggers are considering a "group read" of a new book in medieval studies. We'd announce the title about a month ahead of time to allow you, dearest readers, to be part of our electronic book club.

What do you think? If the idea sounds appealing, what book would you suggest? We'd like to start with something from the New Middle Ages, if possible.

Noted with Interest: Three New Books

Three new volumes in the New Middle Ages series look intriguing:

Heather Blurton
From Beowulf through the literature of the crusades and beyond, cannibals haunt the texts of medieval England. Cannibal Narratives attempts to explain their presence. It explores the relationship between the literary trope of cannibalism and the emergence of national identity in medieval England. If England suffered three centuries of invasion - beginning with the Vikings and continuing through Danish and Norman conquests of the island – it also developed a unique and uniquely literary response to these circumstances. This book reads the representations cannibalism so common in English medieval literature through cannibalism’s metaphoric associations with incorporation, consumption, and violent disruption of the boundaries between self and other. The result uncovers the ways in which these representations articulate a discourse of cannibalism as a privileged mode for thinking about English cultural, and ultimately national, identity in the face of the social crisis.

Christina M. Fitzgerald
This book provides a needed new interpretation of the complex cultural meanings of the late medieval, guild-produced, biblical plays of York and Chester, England, commonly known as mystery plays. It argues that the plays are themselves a “drama of masculinity,” that is, dramatic activity specifically and self-consciously concerned with the fantasies and anxieties of being male in the urban, mercantile worlds of their performance. It further contends that the plays in their historical performance contexts produced and reinforced masculine communities defined by occupation, thus visibly naturalizing the world of work as masculine. The book offers welcome insight into a significant, canonical genre of dramatic literature that has been studied previously in devotional and civic contexts, but not yet in its role in the cultural history of masculinity.

Edited by Eileen A. Joy, Myra J. Seaman, Kimberly K. Bell, and Mary K. Ramsey
Table of contents
Medieval Presentism Before The Present--Nancy F. Partner * Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History--Eileen A. Joy and Myra J. Seaman * PART I: MEDIEVAL, REALITY, TELEVISION * Models of (Im)Perfection: Parodic Refunctioning in Spike TV's The Joe Schmo Show and Geoffrey Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopas"--Kimberly K. Bell * "She appears as brightly radiant as she once was foul": Medieval Conversion Narratives and Contemporary Makeover Shows"--Angela Jane Weisl * Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: Moral Lessons from Handlyng Synne and Survivor--Cynthia A. Ho and James Driggers * Back to the Future: Living the Liminal Life in the Manor House and the Medieval Dream Vision--Betsy McCormick * PART II: ENTERTAINING HISTORIES/HISTORICAL ENTERTAINMENT * Medieval Histories and Modern Realism: Yet Another Origin of the Novel--Nancy F. Partner * Sacrificing Fiction and the Quest for the Real [in] King Arthur--Myra J. Seaman and John Green * PART III: MEDIEVAL, REALITY, POLITICS * The Crisis of Legitimation in Bush's American and Henry IV's England--Daniel T. Kline * Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV--Steve Guthrie * Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants--Michael E. Moore * Exteriority Is Not a Negation But a Marvel: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf--Eileen A. Joy * Otherword: Opening Time: Psychoanalysis and Medieval Culture--Michael Uebel * Afterword: Intertemporality--Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

More distantly in the future, there's also this.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Two memories of an ordinary weekend

It's been a while since I've posted on the minutiae of life chez Cohen. Here follows a corrective, because I know you like stories with cute kids. And you will learn from reading that the local pizza delivery man is a CIA spy.

"Vous êtes francophone?"

I stood in blank silence for a moment before answering "Pas de tout" and handing the man his money. "And I don't think I've ever had someone delivering pizza interrogate me in French before."

"When I asked your son to give me haut cinq, he knew what to do, and said you taught him how to say five in French."

It's true, my French is so good that I can count to five. I also know how to recite the ABCs. Weirdly, I can also tell you what sounds many animals make when they speak en français, and that to a baby you say "coo-coo" rather than "goo goo ga ga." But I didn't expect to have a conversation about such things as the pizza arrived. Our deliveryman, it turns out, included among his former careers missionary in Africa, poet, and CIA language expert. He claimed to be fluent in five tongues. I can vouch for the fact that he spoke French with no accent. His Swahili and Russian seemed pretty good too, but what do I know?

He could also mimic any Loony Tunes character Kid #1 could suggest, leading to an extra large tip and very cold pizza.


A perfect evening: to celebrate Father's Day, we went to a playground in Glover Park and let the kids go wild on the swings and spinning devices. We then strolled to the local Whole Foods, which has one of those hot and cold food bars where the gourmet creations are sold by the pound. Kid #2 loaded her plate with three cucumbers; a hard boiled egg; and "truffled macaroni and cheese" -- only the best for her. Kid #1 chose sushi and minestrone soup, a cosmopolitan meal if ever there was one. We watched two DC high school teams playing baseball on the field nearby, then had dessert at a shop that makes their own ice cream, hot fudge, and whipped cream. Could life be better than this?

At the end, Kid #1 confided that he'd be happy when Father's Day was over and we could go back to Kids Days.

And a historical note, to make this all medieval: Glover Park is a neighborhood in northwest DC where the group of medievalists known as "Front 190" had their second meeting, during a December MLA. I checked out the Thai restaurant where it happened; no plaque yet. I remember I got in a lot of trouble with Michael Uebel at that dinner for chatting with the medievalist next to me when we were supposed to be setting forth our plan for domination of the discipline, if not the world.

Ethnocentrism, Race, Group Belonging, the Present and Future, Jews

Could I add more keywords to the title? Sure, but it's already onerous, and doesn't even begin to get at how the following intersects with much conversation as of late here.

From the website Jewcy, a letter by Jack Wertheimer that offers a view completely opposed to what I posted from the UK site Jewdas last week. No rootless cosmopolitan yeshiva here, but a dismissal of "cosmopolitan pluralism" as mere adolescent frivolity. American Jews can be cosmopolitan, Wertheimer explains, because they marry so late that the "real" work of raising a family and worrying about a bounded (as opposed to imaginary and expansive) future isn't theirs. A quote:
Don’t be so quick to assume that the easy pluralism and globalism you take for granted is forever, any more than is the post-nationalist era proclaimed by the Tony Judt’s of the Jewish world. And don’t assume your non-Jewish peers are as indifferent to group allegiances as they might claim. Your Jewish spiritual ancestors with their flights of internationalist fancy learned this lesson too late.
Dire stuff. Easy stuff to write, too, especially with a sneer. I'm not saying there is no truth to it -- there obviously is -- but surely the harder work is to bring about a future that doesn't repeat or allow to be re-enacted this lachrymose past. A very hard question: to what extent do we learn history in order to escape it? Do we allow history to teach us to brace ourselves for dire times to come? How do we bring about a future that doesn't allow a writer to proclaim that to be a cosmopolitan is to sign the warrant for your death warrant, or that of your children, your people?

Wertheimer is a well published scholar of contemporary Judaism. If you read through the comments that follow his piece, you'll see that his argument that Jews need to take care of Jews first is not finding a receptive audience on the website at which it was published.

Why am I thinking about this? I've just been reading William of Newburgh on the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Slow Continuum That Proceeds in Your Absence: I'm In Love with Angelina Gualdoni

Every now and then you have an accidental experience of which you find it difficult to speak. That happened to me today. The last time it happened was winter of 1998 and the occasion was a retrospective of the work of the English painter Stanley Spencer at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, DC. My friend Pam [Adelaide, Australia] was visiting me at my parents' house in Washington, DC and she had decided, based upon her current issue of Smithsonian Magazine, that she and I should go to the see the then-current exhibit at the Hirshhorn, "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision." I had never heard of him [never mind that he was a close contemporary of Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon--somehow I had overlooked Spencer], and I was feeling cranky about having to go, but by the time I left the museum that day I was overcome with emotion, especially because of Spencer's monumental Resurrection canvases [see here and here], which I have returned to again and again in my thought and work. I have never been able to let them go [similarly with the monumental paintings of Anselm Kiefer whose work I first viewed at the Tate Modern in London in 2004: go here for some of my mad ravings on that].

So today, here in Saint Louis, my cousin Keys comes to see me for a brief five or so-hour visit [on his way from Maryland to Indiana] and it's hot as hell here and my central air system broke down about a week ago and I don't know what we should do so I say, let's go to the art museum, because hell, it's air-conditioned! And there in the "Currents 100" exhibit room, where they feature the work of contemporary artists, are five paintings by Angelina Gualdoni [see second image above for "The Slow Continuum That Proceeds In Your Absence"], all of which feature "failed modernist utopias" [like abandoned shopping malls and Le Corbusier-inspired modular buildings which have fallen into decay]. From the exhibition catalogue:

Some of Gualdoni's work responds to the overwhelming scale and unforgiving materials of massive urban designs such as Oscar Niemeyer's city of Brasilia, Brazil and the recently razed Cabrini-Green housing project in Chiacgo. Another group of paintings concerns the 1999 demise of the Horizons Pavilion in Future World at Walt Disney's Epcot Center. . . . "I painted the demolition event as a slow inevitable," explains Gualdoni, "as if the building had given way to release its fluid miasma, the fruition of unmet expectations."

The titles of Gualdoni's paintings, like the paintings themselves, are both whimsical and sad, such as "The Site of Our Youth, with Wonder but not Nostalgia," which is based on a derelict mall not far from where she grew up. Indeed, Gualdoni's main subjects are out-of-business shopping malls, abandoned small-time theme parks, and decrepit [abandoned] modernist buildings. The paintings were haunting, beautiful, and sublimely sad. They struck me as apt visual markers for many of the conversations we have had here about utopias, the future, and possible worlds.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Au Revoir Nos Vie Privé?, or, Keepin' It Unreal in the TwitBin?

being sick. still being sick., from twitterrific

sick. i'm sick. i hate being sick.
from web

Client review pushed up to 9am. I find out at 8am... Large Redbull, donut, let's roll
from web

my eyeballs are sore
from TwitBin

round the corner from tiger tiger.. must.. resist.. coffee, cake and wifi.. cravings....

To sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.......
the Internet has democratized and amplified personal gut spilling," and further,

Such waves of revelation are fast eroding our notions of private identity. People have always been inclined to share their secrets, to unburden their consciences, and to show off, but in times past these admissions were aimed at confidants—priests, soul mates, diaries. Telling secrets can be therapeutic, but when confession targets the masses, what's really being processed, and who benefits from the disclosure?

Ironically, humans now enjoy more privacy than ever, says Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, president of the University of Haifa and author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. "Two hundred years ago, when people lived in villages or very dense cities, everyone's behavior was evident to many and it was extremely hard to hide it," he says. Today, e-mail and "chatting" online allow for completely anonymous interactions. We can talk and make plans without the whole household or office knowing. But if we're so able to keep things to ourselves, then why are we doing exactly the opposite?

. . . .

"There's a way in which our lives seem valid only if they obtain some veneer of media recognition," says Jefferson Singer, a psychologist at Connecticut College. A blog makes your mundane life into an electronic saga that turns you into something more than an anonymous drone in a technological and impersonal world. "You now have a story and perhaps you've even become the focus of other watchers and listeners," says Singer. "You become a character, a speaking part, in the larger theater of society." Even if you're playing the role of the loser—blogging about being unhappy and unattractive—at least you're part of the show.

While both Turkle and Flora were willing to hear Kendall's arguments that blogging has actually helped her to self-actualize in positive ways, and that--maybe, just maybe--the Internet has actually provided productive avenues toward sociality that have brought some persons out of their sometimes-painful isolation into meaningful community with others [a view I share], the ultimate consensus of the show's [one-sided] "conversation" and its "last word" seemed to be best summed up by Turkle, who repeatedly expressed the concern, as she once put it in an interview with New Scientist [20 Sep. 2006],

what is not being cultivated is the ability to be alone and to manage and contain one's emotions. When technology brings us to the point where we're used to sharing our thoughts and feelings instantaneously, it can lead to a new dependence, sometimes to the extent that we need others in order to feel our feelings in the first place.

What is being bemoaned [or perhaps lamented] here is the loss of what might be called "authenticity" or the "authentic self" [a self who knows "who she is" when no one else is around]. Turkle has a unique position here because, while on the one hand it may appear as if she is worried [anxiously worried, even] over a possible future in which an "authentic human self" will no longer exist [and therefore, what will it mean in this future to talk about the singular person, human rights, free will, or even love?], her own work at MIT is deeply concerned with exploring the [often positive] connections between technology, technological artifacts [such as robots], and human beings: go here for more information on that.

For myself, I was a little disappointed that the program did not focus at all on the type of blogging, such as the kind we do here at In The Middle, that combines serious academic discussion and debate [of an immediate sort that is not usually available outside of the space of a medieval studies conference, and which allows us to extend and deepen our intellectual work, even in virtual "congress" with non-medievalists who can help us to sharpen our thought] with more personal reflections that aid us in coming closer together as a human and not just a medievalist community--and here I can't help but nominate Stephanie Trigg's humanities researcher as exemplary in this regard. To think that Stephanie would blog about her cancer just because she would not know how to "feel" about it otherwise is preposterous to me [she is no Tila Tequila!]--indeed, her commitment to catalogue and narrate her ordeal with breast cancer is both brave and inspiring and reminds us that, for all the powerful scholarship some of us accomplish and for all the passion and commitment many of us bring to our work, we are all frail and mortal and need to remember how, in the midst of all of our professional anxieties and in the often-hostile climate and snobbery of medieval studies, we need to "keep it real." I'm as interested in Stephanie's reflections upon her cancer as I am in her sadness over the loss of her favorite milk bar ["I Still Miss Isella"--great post] as I am in her chronicling of her research activities and her academic travels. The narrative she provides on her blog is of a three-dimensional person who has enough to keep her busy without blogging about all of it, but the fact that she does so is an act of generosity not narcissism, and it enriches all of us who read it.

Just after listening to the On Point program I arrived home to find my new issue of Vanity Fair in my mailbox [the special Africa issue guest edited by Bono], in which issue there were excerpts from Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason, where, interestingly, he descries television as the main culprit in the so-called "death" or "decline" of authentic and reflective life and heralds the Internet as perhaps the last place where democracy might still be possible.

So, all of this got me thinking and wondering: does too much blogging, life-logging, live-caming, and live-journaling really threaten the cultivation of the authentic and private self? Is "being alone" a necessary precondition for authentic self-actualization? Was it really more difficult in the premodern era to "hide" one's behavior, thoughts, and emotions? Why does a "private self" matter so much to what we think of as "being human"? Could the Internet really be the last safe haven of rational thought, strong critique, and freedom?

UPDATE: As a side-letter to my post here and also to partially respond to Karl's comment below, see also Tim Spence's Kalamazoo paper [which he presented on BABEL's "premodern to modern humanisms" panel], "The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self." It's awesome.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Medieval Race and Slavery

I'm cutting this from an essay that is currently too long, an essay that begins with a somewhat extraneous riff on why "race" should be a term used to describe the differentiations of peoples in the Middle Ages. Whenever I say this, someone always asks "What about slavery? Doesn't chattel slavery impact the modern use of race in a way that cannot be true for medieval peoples?"

Here are some thoughts. You might also want to read Eileen's post on the Redress Project alongside them, and/or click on "race" in the Quick Subject Links at your right.

It could be argued that a period that did not inherit the legacy of institutionalized slavery based upon skin color could not possibly have conceptualized race in the modern sense of the word.

True, the British Isles of the twelfth century witnessed nothing like the plantation system that would force the movement of millions from sub-Saharan Africa. The first Norman-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, convinced a reluctant William the Conqueror to prohibit the lucrative slave trade. Yet like most of Europe Britain lived with a memory of institutionalized slavery, the byproduct as well as the catalyst of endemic internal and external warfare.(1) Forced servitude was conducted on a relatively small scale and practiced without regard to national origin. Before their unification into a single kingdom, the Anglo-Saxons enslaved each other as well as their neighbors. The Old English word wealh, destined eventually to become the noun Welsh, could also designate a Briton slave, such as those captured when Æthelstan conquered the southwest in the tenth century.(2)

Slavery was an integral part of the medieval west's plunder economies. Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a missionary but as captive, abducted from his father's estate in Britain when he was sixteen years old. Pope Gregory would never have had his famous encounter with beautiful English boys for sale in the Roman marketplace had not marauding for slaves been an expansive international business. Moriuht, the story of an Irish husband and wife captured by Vikings and sold as slaves, eventually freeing themselves to settle in Normandy, survives in an account by their hostile neighbor, the poet Garnier of Rouen. The church successfully suppressed much slaving activity by the twelfth century, but could not wholly eliminate it. William of Malmesbury writes that Godwine, destined to father the future King Harold, had in his youth been married to a sister of Cnut who accumulated great wealth by purchasing slaves in England and then shipping them for resale to her native Denmark.(3) Welsh warlords forced their human booty -- sometimes Welsh, sometimes English or Norman -- into servitude.(4) The practice was happily continued by their English enemies, although slavery in England vanished long before its disappearance in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland(5). This kind of servitude was not necessarily predicated upon the idea that whole groups are born to subservience because of differences carried in the body and manifested through an inferior culture. Yet slavery in its relation to medieval race is complicated (6). Even when groups did not make judgments about identity based solely upon general differences in skin color or physiognomy, they nonetheless seldom avoided the creation of mythologies that entwined cultural and bodily differences.

(1)David Pelteret puts it well: "Slavery can be said to have been a normal feature of early mediaeval European societies" (Slavery in Early Mediaeval England 15). On William, Lanfranc, and the slave trade, see 78. As Pelteret makes clear, just because slavery was decreed illicit did not mean that it stopped in practice for quite some time. Irish slave markets operated until perhaps 1170, stocked mainly with English captives.

(2)Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England 70 and appendix I, "wealh."

(3)William disliked Earl Godwine, and this attack on his Danish first wife may simply be an attempt to render a foreigner as detestable as possible, but William will later accuse the English nobles in general of a similar practice, selling the "common people ... off to distant parts." Deeds of the Kings of the English, 2.200, 3.245.

(4) R. R. Davies, The First English Empire, 122-23. Again, though, the accusation of slaving raids is often made by an enemy in order to represent a group as uncivilized and therefore in dire need of subjugation. Cf. the narration of Welsh rebellion at the death of king Henry in the Gesta Stephani, a pro-English account of Stephen's reign: "[The Welsh roved] as plunderers through the whole district ... old men they exposed to slaughter or mockery; the young of both sexes they delivered over to chains and captivity" (1.9).

(5) John Gillingham, The English in the Twelfth Century 13-14, 45-47

(6) On Iceland see Jenny Jochens, "Race and Ethnicity in the Old Norse World" and on Italy Steven A. Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy.

Wæs hal, the British tongue, and English as infection

From the intriguing blog Varieties of Unreligious Experience, Gervase of Tilbury inspires a meditation on toasts:
Otia Imperialia, Book II, chapter 17:
It was Hengist's daughter who introduced the well-known custom of extending a solemn invitation to drink by saying, 'wes hāl', which means 'be merry'; to this the guest in turn replies: 'drink hāl', that is, 'drink merrily'. In the British tongue the corresponding words are cantinoch and boduit.
Nowadays we write, 'wassail' and 'drink hail'—and that's 'hail' as in hale, ie. whole or healthy, rather than merry. According to the OED, the words are not attested as toasts in either Old English or Old Norse, but were probably first used as such by the Danes in England; the earliest reference is from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in English from Lawman's translation of Wace's Brut, itself based largely on Geoffrey. The first time I toasted a health with Mrs. Roth—it was a small glass of port, my favourite drink, which she was happy to essay, and relieved to enjoy, on the occasion of her 30th birthday, spent in the City of Love; we were not yet married, but on our way—I softly called 'wassail', and was disappointed not to receive the correct response. (You say I have unreasonable standards? This I expected purely because she counts herself a mediaevalist, and an Anglo-Saxonist to boot. Still, she knew for next time.)

Gervase's editors footnote thus:
Professor Patrick Sims-Williams and Dr Marged Haycock suggest that cantinoch could be Old Welsh (or Cornish or Breton) can(t) tin uch, meaning 'with bottom up', while boduit could be Old Welsh (or Breton) bod (d)it, meaning 'goodwill to you' or 'thanks to you', influenced by Middle Irish is buide duit, 'it is well for you', or else equivalent to Modern Welsh boddwyd, 'it/he has been drowned', which is used metaphorically to mean 'celebrate'. The word can is attested in Welsh from the beginning of the seventeenth century with the meaning 'tankard'; it is quite conceivable that this loanword from English can was in the language for centuries before its first attestation, in which case the phrase would mean 'tankard bottom up!'
Conrad Roth then goes on in his blog to lament the fact that we seldom toast anything anymore. It's hard to disagree. In fact I'll toast that sentiment.

What's most interesting to me about Gervase's version of this famous scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth is that he provides -- or attempts to provide -- the "British tongue" version of the toast. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, the originator of the episode, we get a weird moment when Latin is interrupted by an outbreak of English. Geoffrey seldom interjects English (or Welsh, for that matter) into his Latin, "Stonehenge" being the other notable exception. In Wace, Geoffrey's first vernacularizer, the movement is from French to English, since the former language is being used to narrate the British story (though, admittedly, Wace has a way of making Geoffrey seem a historian of England, since Angleterre takes the place of Britannia). In Lawman, the archaic English into which Wace is being rendered is interrupted by ... more English. None of these authors gives the British version of the toast, since in each case Latin, French or English is substituting for the "British tongue." Welsh, it seems, is a language assumed incapable of communicating outside of the southwest of the island into which it has receded.

Further, for Geoffrey the English toast wassail is a kind of infection, propelled towards the British leader Vortigern by a Saxon seductress. Wassail is a fragment of Englishness that, once imbibed with the drink, lodges deep in Vortigern. He madly desires the speaker, whom he marries in a baleful miscegenation. For Gervase, it all seems so much more neutral, perhaps because the cultural stakes had by the thirteenth century become so low.

[The illustration above is a hoard of Roman drinking cups from Roman Britain (late 1st century AD) found in Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk. More information from the British Museum here. Though these cups had been crushed before interment, vessels from the underground which, had they been discovered in the Middle Ages, might have told a story of a deeper history of the land than was commonly recounted always remind me of a story from William of Newburgh which features a mysterious goblet purloined from a tumulus.]

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Speaking of St Columba ...

... and all the fun he had at Iona (as I just did), high resolution images of a ninth century manuscript of Adamnan of Iona's Vita sancti Columbae [Cod. Sang. 555] may be accessed here.

In fact, you can browse an amazing array of the holdings of the
Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland, in German, French, English or Italian. It's a stunning site. What a generous act to make the manuscripts so easily available.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Constriction, Circumscription, Critique: More Other Worlds

Why are these possible worlds and alternate realities I've been aggregating necessary, at least to the England that dreamed them?

In part -- as came through in the comments to yesterday's post -- these Other Worlds offer a potentially affirmative vision, a version of the world that doesn't necessarily include the circumscriptions, foreclosures, and abjections through which stable identities come into being. True, many times these worlds open a portal upon memories of historical traumas that limn the present. Just as frequently, through such a portal can be glimpsed a more capacious ordering of that present -- and by more capacious I also mean more enchanted and more just.

One way of explaining the allure of these Other Worlds is to emphasize their escapist potential, since they are in part oneiric geographies that, once entered, could allow the dreamer to depart a troubled present without changing it, at least for a while. But that's only part of the story. By asking what the present would be like if it were configured differently, by wondering what Now would be if Then were remembered either better or simply differently, these Other Worlds offer, at least potentially, the opportunity for trenchant social critique, for imaging the world otherwise.

Fantasy is likely never the best way to change the mundane givenness of a particular life, of a particular world ... but fantasies of alternate realities do emphasize the contingency, the non-inevitability, of the world as currently known. Medieval England's Other Worlds invited the nation to ponder what it had abandoned to become itself, what other possibilities there might be for forming community in the realm.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More on England and its Possible Worlds

Here, a further contribution to an emergent thread on wonder, possible worlds, medieval alternative realities, and modern fantasy as portal to the medieval. See also:
[from Medieval Identity Machines]

Postcolonial theory directed toward the study of the Americas has a tendency to describe western Europe as a community of nations with a shared set of values, especially in the outward thrust of their imperial zeal. Even within national boundaries, European countries are imagined to be homogeneous: the French, the English, the Spanish and so on are supposed to have discrete identities intimately tied to the stable and apparently natural boundaries of their homelands. Europe is thus composed of coherent corporate entities with a tendency to act uniformly, even when in competition with each other. In describing the exploitation machine erected by Columbus as a kind of "medieval vacuum cleaner" which sucked resources from the New World for deposit on distant shores, Antonio Benítez-Rojo can therefore assume that Europe acted as a singular agent in perfecting a structure which was initially rather inept, augmenting its Columbian bricolage with la flota (the machine formed of ships, ports, and flows of raw material and wealth), missionaries deployed to effect religious transformation, plantations with their adaptable structures for quick implementation and lasting domination, "an entire huge assemblage of machines" whose conjunction enabled efficient colonization and maximum profit (The Repeating Island).

Medievalists who study the European west are unlikely, however, to recognize the singular geographical actor at the receiving end of this impressive apparatus. Strangely enough, it is the culture of the meta-archipelago and the dynamic Caribbean machine which reverberate as possible figurations for the psychical and cultural complexity of the occidental Middle Ages. Recent work in medieval studies has undercut the possibility of assuming a transhistorical, corporate identity for Europe, arguing that the term organizes into an imaginary totality communities which did not necessarily perceive themselves as part of any such grand collective. Linguistically and culturally diverse, connected by shifting alliance and multiple affiliation, medieval Europa was a machine animated as much by conquest, alliance and shared history (consolidating or integrative movements) as violent counterstruggle and ultimate inassimilability (eruption, assertion, sedimentation of difference). Benítez-Rojo is writing of a specific time and place in their relation to constitutive histories and topographies, of a geotemporality of which the Middle Ages knew nothing and which -- "medieval vacuum cleaners" aside -- had in turn little knowledge of the European medium aevum. Yet his "polyrhythmic" conceptual figurations are useful in struggling toward a language in which to collect an entity as big as the western Middle Ages even while insisting upon the inherent inadequacy and potential violence which all such generalization performs.

What if like the Caribbean space described by Benítez-Rojo the western Middle Ages consist of islands of difference made contiguous through the shared embrace of turbulent, confluential seas? Bede, after all, described the flow of time (lapsus temporum) as both "churning" (volubilis) and "wave-tossed" (fluctivagus). Why not extend Bede's oceanic metaphors to include the possibility of more solid spaces within the temporal flux? Some of these islands might, like the barren outcroppings sought by early Irish eremites, stand in relative isolation. Most, however, would be more like monkish Iona. The loneliness of this island in the outer Hebrides dissipates the moment we recall that Saint Columba assembled there a polyglot community drawn from many nations; that the monastery which he founded was visited with some regularity by merchants from Gaul; that flows of books and boats and pilgrims traversed its shores; that little Iona's history is inseparable from epic battles waged in Ireland and Scotland, from the consolidation of a Christian Northumbria by Oswald, from the missionary effort to convert those Pictish kingdoms now lost to history. Adomnán, Columba's eventual successor and composer of his vita, even entertained at the monastery a storm-tossed pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. The Life of Saint Columba is a weirdly heterogeneous text, as likely to narrate a relentlessly local anecdote about a demon dwelling in the bottom of a milk pail or the saint's predicting an imminent spilled inkpot as to provide a sweeping evocation of how this "island at the edge of the ocean" disseminates miracles known beyond "the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps." Iona in the Life is not ultimately much of an island. Even when Columba resides on its rocky shores his spirit wanders, participating in distant martial clashes, communing with angelic visitors, scattering his selfhood across the wide world. The Life of Saint Columba textually performs this sacred fluidity, resolutely refusing linear chronology or recognizable biography. Names and events recur irregularly; sometimes Columba is dead and sometimes he is alive; the action often unfolds in Iona, but sometimes we are in Ireland, or among the Picts, or watching the Loch Ness monster attack. We are constantly transported across marine expanses without transitional signals, taken back to Iona without warning, in movements that draw together distant geotemporalities without synthesizing them into a homogenous whole.

The western Middle Ages as expanse of diverse conceptual isles means existence in intimate, unexpected connection through the swirl of manifold currents, through swiftly changing movements which rapidly commix flows of peoples, goods, ideas, armies, languages, architectures, books, genes, religions, affects, animals, technologies. Scatterings of lands gathered in their mutual relations, gathered with the currents that animate but do not totalize them, a medieval meta-archipelago would lack fixed boundaries and contain multiple centers. European cultures, communities, nations become relational and provisional imaginings rather than ontological, self-possessed wholes. Think, for example, of Custance in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, inscribing a colonial trajectory at once provincially English and transnationally Christian upon a world that includes Syria, Rome, Northumberland. A meta-archipelago requires that this cosmos be seen not only through that imperial gaze which frames the narrative, but also through the eyes of the Sultaness, the Northumbrians, Custance herself as a woman caught in a gendered game of cultural, religious, mercantile, bodily exchange. David Nirenberg has demonstrated that violence not only established medieval communities of diversity, but was integral to sustaining them (Communities of Violence). As the Man of Law's Tale also indicates, violence plays an important role in the instigation and maintenance of the flows that forcibly bind one conceptual island in the medieval archipelago to another.

Yet, in a kind of decolonization, the meta-archipelago enables the supposed margins of Europe to lose their status as peripheral geographies, so that Wales, Ireland, Brittany, Iceland, the Midi, Catalonia become centers in their own right, dynamic points of reception and dispersal in an open meshwork of transverse, transformative differences. No circumscribing map could capture the proliferating fullness of such islands, for every time the borders of a homogenous Britannia seem to have been securely delineated, another story begins to circulate of some interior, underground civilization where the people speak a long dead language, have green skin, or give other marks of their fairy alterity, of their inassimilable difference to an island that will never achieve its ambition of becoming a well ordered self-same.

These "figures of secret and unknown origin" (as Gervase of Tilbury called them) inhabited the interiors of mountains and ruled submarinal demesnes. Even the skies were populated by alien navigators of inscrutable intent. In the Otia imperiala, Gervase describes how a congregation leaving church beholds an anchor falling from the sky. In the distant clouds sailors can be heard struggling to pull the device back aboard their ship. Soon one of these mariners shimmies down the rope, hand over hand. He is immediately seized by the crowd, struggles for his life, and drowns because the "moistness of our denser air" is intolerable to his ether-adapted lungs. When "our" previously invisible air becomes weighty enough to function as someone else's sea, then "our" skies become the currents by which the medieval archipelago exuberantly connects difference to sameness in unanticipated ways. In mentioning such fantastic peoples living below the earth, under the waters, and in the clouds along with the real denizens of places like Wales and Ireland -- people who were themselves sometimes represented in just such "magical" and dehumanizing ways in order to exaggerate the challenge which they posed to English hegemony -- my intention is not to take any measure of concrete, lived reality away from any denizen of the medieval archipelago but rather, in sympathy with a medieval impulse, to populate its land, seas, and air with as much life as possible, to restore to this world its vastness, its vitalism, its irreducible heterogeneity.

[PS Here is a bit I found on Gervase's story of the enchurched anchor, including a mocking citation of Seamus Heaney's poem on the subject. And here is the citation itself.]

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quote of the Day: Robert Bartlett on Medieval Other Worlds

One of my favorite histories of the English Middle Ages is Robert Bartlett's encyclopedic England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. The title might lead you to expect the usual "this king did this and then his son did that and then the barons got angry and did this,"but the book is nothing of the sort. In a stunning 772 pages Bartlett manages to cover everything from governance to war to rural society to the arts to the course of life to the cohabitation of humans and animals to the church ... and on and on, in passages that exude as much wit as erudition. My favorite chapter of the book is "Cosmologies," broken into the subsections Time; The World; The Chain of Being; and Beings Neither Angelic, Human or Animal. In that very last section Bartlett surveys the mysterious Other Worlds that the twelfth century imagined cozied up against and erupted at times into our own.

Here are a few snippets from that last section:

Although there was no simple all-embracing formulation that writers of the twelfth century could use to label green children from below the earth, diminutive household spirits, beautiful ladies dancing by night in woodland halls, and other fleeting and uncanny creatures, they were clearly considered to belong together and are not merely a category invented by modern historians and scholars. The evidence is that writers like Ralph of Coggeshall and Gervase of Tilbury group their stories about such beings together ... If such beings thus constituted a class, there was still no agreed explanation of their origin and nature ... The minds of the men and women of England in our period thus ahd room for a variety of beings that did not fit neatly into the orthodox and established trio of man, beast, and (good or bad) angel. There was nothing 'popular' about such beliefs, except in the sense that they were widespread ... Strange breeds and spirits were thus just as much at home with the gentry as the peasantry. Similarly, a learned education did not make one less likely to believe in such beings. The clergy was a s deeply enmeshed as the gentry ... The strange creatures that flitted across the borders of the human and the mundane world were not beyond the bounds of possibility. Below the Essex fields, within the Yorkshire barrows, and beyond the Suffolk shore were creatures who lived an alien life of their own.

I'd only add: I'm not sure that these aliens lived their own lives so much as they lived lives of possibility on behalf of those who dreamed them. Among these possibilities was that of an England that did not have to come into being through violent circumscription, a capacious rather than constrictive space that could be a part of an archipelago rather than a pars pro toto.

Richard Rorty on the Human

Today's Washington Post has an obituary essay by Adam Bernstein on the philosopher Richard Rorty, who died last Friday.

An heir to William James and John Dewey, Dr. Rorty advocated a philosophy known as pragmatism, which shunned what he considered a fruitless search to answer unknowable questions: What is the meaning of life? Do other people exist? He had rejected the field of analytic philosophy on the ground that it attempts to address those questions, which he largely considered a waste of time, and had created something akin to a hunt for timeless truths, another idea he strongly criticized ...

Michael Williams, philosophy department chairman at Johns Hopkins University, said Dr. Rorty, one of his mentors, "taught the lesson there are no fixed and permanent foundations for anything, that anything could be changed. Where some see this as cause for despair, he saw this as cause for hope because it meant we could always do better. . . . He reveled in contingency," what happens as a result of human progress.

Williams added: "Instead of trying to define the essence of human nature, Rorty thought we should creatively think up new possibilities for ourselves -- what to be, how to live. He said we are not hostage to how things are. He spoke of pragmatism as a future-oriented philosophy."

I love also this paragraph:
He also recalled the importance of his childhood interest in wild orchids, which he found near his parents' property in western New Jersey. He developed a strong aesthetic yearning for such "socially useless flowers," he later wrote in his autobiographical essay "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids." He spoke of hoping to find a way to balance this appreciation of pure beauty with his parents' emphasis on intellectual purity -- and he described philosophy as a way to work through his competing beliefs.