Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Partners in Grief: Andrew and the Starving Mermedonians

A entry in a book event, unlike a book review, makes no claim to completeness, finality, or even to treating the book under question directly. Consider yourself warned, because what I'm posting is a less-cluttered version of the marginalia you see pictured.

The subject of Blurton's first chapter is the Old English Andreas, which tells the story of a warrior saint sent to the anthropophagous Mermedonians. Soon after he arrives, Andrew frees Matthew and hundreds of others from prison, so depriving the Mermedonians of their food. They wail, of course, and feed on the corpses of the guards slain by Andrew. Still hungry, they fall to drawing lots to determine who will be eaten next. Blurton sets out a standard approach to this episode:
When a victim is chosen in this way, in order to save himself, he substitutes his small son in his place. While the Mermedonians are described as starving: "hungre wæron / þearle geþreatod" [they were cruelly harassed by hunger] (1114b-1115a; 139), the horror of the Mermedonians' ravenous rage turned against an innocent boy through the agency of one by whom he should be loved and protected highlights their depravity and, by extension, the righteousness of Andreas' mission. (17-18)
She of course sets out the standard approach only to muddle the clear binaries. As Mermedonia is an island that looks much like Britain, and since Andrew's mission seems to be as much one of conquest as it is one of conversion, we might say Andrew's gone a-Viking and the Mermedonians are his victims (25). The Mermedonian costume and military organization should themselves be uncannily familiar to the tenth-century English. And Andrew himself is someone who eats human flesh and drinks human blood: he's a Christian after all, and it had recently become de rigeur to demand that the Eucharist be understood as the real body of Christ.

Blurton explains in an early note that she won't be discussing famine cannibalism in her book (139 n2), but it strikes me that the topoi of famine cannibalism can be used to draw Andrew and the Mermedonians still more closely together. When anthropophagy is a custom, it's of course monstrous (indeed, as Blurton observes, it's a standard feature for many of the monsters in the Liber monstrorum), but when anthropophagy results from famine, it's a catastrophe, a cause for grief, and thus provokes a wholly different kind of horror, one that involves us rather than one that distinguishes us from some other. And it's usual to turn to eating children during a famine: see Leviticus 26:27-9, Deuteronomy 28:53-7, Lamentations 4:10, or 2 Kings 6 :28-29; or the story from Josephus of Mary/Maria of Jerusalem, who cooks and eats half her own child during Titus's siege (see my reference and its note in the first graph here); or the ninth-century Annals of Fulda, in which a family is saved from killing their child during a famine only when they steal a deer's carcass from hungry wolves; or the sad story of a father who killed and ate his own daughter during a famine at the command of his Saracen captors (Innocent III responds to the father's appeal for penance by enjoining him “nunquam de caetero carnibus pro quacunque necessitate vesceretur” (Epistola LXXX, PL 214: 1063D-64B; never again to eat any other meat for whatever necessity); or even, looking far afield, this law from the thirteenth-century Castillian lawcode, the Siete Partidas:
And there is another reason that a father can do this: according to the true law of Spain a father who is besieged in a castle he holds from his lord, may, if so beset with hunger that he has nothing to eat, eat his child with impunity rather than surrender the castle without permission of the lord (quoted from John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers 329)
Blurton aims at doing a "contrapuntal reading" (see Said Culture and Imperialism) that "creates a counterpoint between a dominant cultural discourse and a resisting perspective, which opens up a new space for meaning" (18); in this case, "Reading Andreas contrapuntally uncovers what I refer to as its cannibal narrative, that is, a narrative that is sympathetic to the cannibal Mermedonians" (18). I would like to think that if I weren't suffering from a days'-long headcold, I could draw all this together. For now, I want only to observe that when the father saves himself by offering up his son to be eaten, any response that saw this only as monstrous would be self-congratulatory. But more likely, the response would have been the shock of the familiar, the shuddering memory of what horrors famines cause (on their frequency, and thus familiarity, see the list in P. Bonnassie “Consommation d’aliments immondes et cannibalisme de survie dans l’Occident du haut Moyen Age." Annales 44 (1989): 1035-56, at 1045: there were 29 major famines between 751 and 1100), and shared sorrow. For a time, the readers of Andreas would have felt for and with the Mermedonians.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, what's up with your handwriting? Sloppy, sloppy.

The Mermedonian offering of the living child (and specifically of the son by a father) moves the episode in multiple directions. You've done an admirable job of contextualizing the act historically and discursively within famine stories; the reading adds yet another layer to Blurton's interpretation. But dad's can't sacrifice their little boys without making the act resonate allegorically: Abraham and Isaac, God and Jesus ... bringing us right back to the eucharist, I suppose.

Blurton's right, there is no easy line of demarcation to draw between the orthodox Christian and the cannibal Mermedonian, between the normal and the monstrous ... but isn't that true of nearly all Anglo-Saxon monsters? Think of Grendel, the dragon, the demons besetting Guthlac, the Hostes, the Donestre, giant uppity women ... do any offer crisp boundaries, unblurred lines?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I suspect that a really deep reading of the Ugolino episode would clarify everything.

But seriously, what I really want to know, not having read the OE Andreas or Blurton, is why these cannibals are dependent upon human meat. In other words, there is a fascinating labor issue here, cannibalism as the absolute failure of labor! Is this a dimension that gets articulated in the sources, and if not, is it, whatever other discursive work cannibalism is doing in the Middle Ages (and this is especially relevant to the famine-sympathy insight), part of cannibalism's 'secret,' something that all psychologizing interpretations are in danger of missing?

Certainly by the time you get to Herzog ("Look! Meat!"), the labor failure is clear, but is there definite medieval precedent.

theswain said...

THat's what I get for coming to this third....all the good references to Abraham and Ugolino which I thought of have been done! Ah well.

I'd like to draw out Jeffrey's mention of Abraham a tad. The story as you know does not mention anthrophagy, but such sacrifices at least in the ANE were often meals...sacrifice the bull, sheep, child etc but the rest was a meal at least for the priests. Something like that lies behind the Abraham story that wants to one up so to speak the other ANE gods....Abraham's experience was only a test, and a miraculous provision of a ram made it even better.

Back to the eucharist thing, of course, the whole typology of Abraham and Isaac as a type of God the Father sacrificing his son Jesus, but this time he does go through with it, and it does result in a "meal".

However, I'm not sure the line is as blurred as Blurton and Jeffrey make it. While the Mermedonians would be recognized as sympathetic in a way, in that starvation results in the comsumption of the young (one can always make more) to survive, at the same time, as Asa's examples illustrate this was done at the extremity, at the very limit of human survival and even then while the necessity might be recognized and so absolute censure withheld, nonetheless such actions were obviously neither the norm nor accepted as being the norm. Further, the Mermedonians are in these straits BECAUSE of their monstrous behavior of eating other humans....if that were not their food source, Andreas' freeing fo the captives would not cause them to be in the situation where they eat one another.

So while I agree that the Mermedonians are more sympathetically received in the Anglo-Saxon audience than by modern readers, I would still say that the line of demarcation is at least clearer than Blurton describes it.

Oh, eucharistic.....nearly forgot since this is the crux....the eating and drinking of the sacrament however is not just eating a human being, it is the consumption of the God-Man or the Man-God and so is transformative from this life to that life, and so I think at least in Anglo-Saxon reception would be in a different category than Mermedonian comestibles.

Sceopellen said...

Perhaps on the wrong track - I have not read OE Andreas or managed to get hold of Blurton's work... Is it that the cannibalism element here is simply an emphasis on the need to reach Christ via the Eucharist, revealed by the panic of being starved of God's presence? I have read of texts (including sections of the Bible I believe) that link hunger and the psychological/eschatological need for salvation.

Following on from theswain's point: there was a deep-seated link between illness and God's divine judgement/destiny, which certainly changed medieval views on medicine and healing, so surely this would also impact on the view of the body in medieval times? If the body is seen as the vessel for the soul/is controlled by God's divine judgement/destiny, then wouldn't the cannibalism in this text link also to concepts of damnation, not just salvation?

Again, I haven't read far into this topic and am therefore clutching at straws somewhat!