Sunday, October 28, 2007

Infinite Realms

Below you will find my introduction to the forthcoming collection Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain: Archipelago, Island, England. Much of it will seem familiar to readers of this blog, who have been so very helpful in sharpening in its argument. The volume is currently in production at Palgrave for the New Middle Ages series. Look for the book next year.

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)

Other Worlds
Medieval Welsh and Irish texts offer stories of realms that exist in strange contiguity to everyday life. The otherworld of Annwn finds its gateway at a mound where adventurers sit seeking wonders. In the account of Cú Chulainn's love for Fand, queen of the sídhe, the hero enters a parallel universe through a nondescript tumulus. The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and the Only Jealousy of Emer [Serglige Con Culainn ocus Óenét Emire] describes the uncanny beings inhabiting this domain as differing from the Irish in their customs, elder history, and potency in magic. Cú Chulainn is cured of self-destructive love for his Fairy Queen only through the intervention of an oblivion spell: he must forget the riches of her world to reinhabit his own. Like many Irish and Welsh stories involving hillocks as portals, the dominant narrative of The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn seems to enfold within 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 dimming twilight.

Oddly enough, a gateway to another world seems to have opened in a mound in twelfth-century Yorkshire as well. The English historian William of Newburgh describes the circumstances. As a nocturnal traveler returned home, his journey was interrupted when song resounded from what had until that moment been a familiar landmark:
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.

William assures us that this tumulus is quite near his own birthplace, that he has seen it numerous times himself. 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 away the libation and flees to his village, clutching the empty goblet. The revelers pursue, eager to regain their stolen cup, but cannot overtake his horse.

The purloined vessel is described as mysterious in every way, "of unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape" [vasculum materiae incognitae, coloris insoliti, et formae inusitate]. The treasure is bestowed upon King Henry as a gift, and then from the king of England passes to his brother-in-law, David King of Scots, and thence to Henry II. The goblet circulates from the enigmatic mound dwellers to an unnamed Englishman to a succession of regents (Anglo-Norman to Anglo-Scottish to Anglo-Angevin). Yet the vessel’s path is determined not by some weighty history behind its fabrication (this is not the Grail, moving through a world it shapes), but via its inert status as mere curiosity. Through theft, the cup of unknown material becomes divorced from its history, becomes an object existing for an uncomprehending present. The goblet is 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 story of that community glimpsed within a now permanently inscrutable mound, a lifeless curve of grass and dirt.

What would happen, though, if the English traveler had joined the celebration inside the tumulus rather than stolen its tableware and fled? Having stumbled across a queer intrusion into his accustomed space, could he have accepted the invitation to conviviality? What would have come to pass had the man risked conversation with the subterranean congregants, if one of these congenial revelers had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their elegant repast? Whose history would this mound-dweller narrate? Barely glimpsed by a passerby who preferred the security of his village over the incongruity of the feast, this history would likely be very different from the narrative William of Newburgh otherwise composes.

For William, too, refuses the invitation from the tumulus, discerning at the far side of the mound’s open door a lost tale rather than a living one. A Yorkshire man for whom the hillock had been a quotidian boyhood sight, William is an author proudly English. At the beginning of his work he states flatly that he composes historiam gentis nostrae, id est Anglorum [“a history of our race, that is, the English,” 1.Prologue]. The Britons who had held the land long before “our race” are, in his account, barbarians whose displacement was both necessary and just. The Irish, a people whose land England was energetically annexing as William wrote, are likewise “uncivilized and barbarous.” For William of Newburgh insular history belongs to England. Anyone who insists otherwise – say, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his spectacular History of the Kings of Britain, a resolutely non-anglocentric account of the island’s past – is ridiculously “dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number” (alium orbem somniat infinita regna habentem, 1.Prologue). Writing six decades after Geoffrey, William chronicles the story of a world containing precisely one realm, England.

Geoffrey had provocatively described a Britain possessed of so extensive a history that the Saxons became parvenus, mere interlopers. Long before Alfred and Athelstan reigned, according to the History of the Kings of Britain, Briton heroes like Brutus, Brennius, and Arthur flourished, achieving martial feats unparalleled in English history. Yet despite William’s vitriol for Geoffrey’s proliferative vision, despite his dismissal of Geoffrey’s Arthurian history as mendacity, as a space oneiric rather than factual, William’s History of English Affairs features a hillock that beckons with open doorway, the portal to another realm. The stately feast beheld within the tumulus transforms the mound from a local landmark of no great significance to an alien interstice quite unlike the mundane expanses that surround its rise.

Had the celebrants of the mound’s underground celebration been invited to speak their history, the narrative they would likely tell might reveal the difference between stories of England and stories of Britain, between the attenuated narrative of a kingdom that masqueraded as the entirety of an island and the histories of a tempestuous world too vast, too motley, too entangled in an archipelago of other worlds to be so reduced.

Archipelago, Island, England
“British History has been much in the air of late,” R. R. Davies observed two decades ago, “but it still seems strangely reluctant to come down.” Davies worried that embracing the label “British History” had enabled English historians to “confess their anglocentricity without performing practical penance,” a state of affairs made no better by the fact that historians of Wales, Scotland and Ireland often seemed “intent on cultivating their own corners” instead of adopting a more capacious, more gregarious mode. To move from England to Britain without sacrificing the diversity of the latter to an imagined uniformity in the former is, admittedly, not easy to accomplish – especially because medieval English writers had the infuriating habit of using Britannia or even totius Britanniae as a synonym for Anglia. Yet the difference between an analytical frame centered around medieval England and a wider, paninsular perspective has been well illustrated by Edward James in Britain in the First Millennium, a work that restores multiplicity to the island by examining its history over an exceptionally longue durée. James writes that his expanded temporal span (“the long first millennium”) enables Britain to be studied “as the whole of Britain, from Cornwall to the Shetlands, rather than (usually) England or (sometimes) Wales or Scotland.” A multifarious agent enmeshed within – indeed, inextricable from -- a wide and volatile European context, Britain thereby becomes something more than “a self-sufficient island occasionally invaded or visited as if by aliens from another world.” Similarly, Barry Cunliffe assembles a vast sweep of cultures into a heterogeneous, enduring alliance he calls “the peoples of the long Atlantic façade of Europe.” By resisting the impulse to linguistic segregation, Cunliffe is able to map how the shared experience of living between land and sea gathers seemingly disparate groups into a maritime network of unceasing interaction, shared experience, and cultural interchange, an Atlantic identity as evident in Norman conquistadors as in the Neolithic peoples of the southern British coast. Both James and Cunliffe make clear the critical gains that accrue through the adoption of this transnational ambit, especially when it takes as its point of departure a lively archipelago in constant and transformative contact with a far-extending world.

Most influential among medievalists attempting to emplace the insular Middle Ages within more capacious analytical frames has been the late R. R. Davies. His far-reaching work details how a restless expanse of islands contracted over time into the four well-delimited geopolitical entities we know today. In a vivid account of this long process of materialization and separation, Davies observes that countries
do not descend fully formed from heaven but are shaped and reshaped here on earth by the stratagems of men and the victories of the fortuitous. But once they take root and are bolstered by the habits and mechanisms of unity and by a common mythology, they soon acquire an image, if not of immemoriality, at least of almost inevitable and organic development.

"England," "Scotland," "Wales" and "Ireland" are not natural or even especially obvious partitions of the islands. Quadripartite division is the culmination of centuries of antagonism and alliance that could very well have produced a profoundly different configuration. The hard work of forging fate out of the vagaries of fortune, of creating circumscribed nations and discrete peoples from the sheer messiness of history, usually proceeds retroactively, positing in the past the unchanging solidities desired in the present. Patricia Ingham captures this process with eloquence when she writes:
The nation is always an illusion, a fantasy of wholeness that threatens again and again to fragment from the inside out. Fantasies of national identity teach peoples to desire union; they help inculcate in a populace the apparent 'truth' that unity, regulation, coordination, and wholeness are always better, more satisfying, and more fascinating, than the alternatives. Yet in order to promote desires for national unity, the nation, its core identity, must appear always to have been there, poised to fascinate its people, and ready to be desired.

Whether within the parameters of nation, city, race, or some other solidarity, this desire for unity is frequently engendered through narrative. When examining or imagining the past, such discourses typically assume that when events take one of many possible turns, then that outcome was predestined, even providential. Colin Richmond, contemplating the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, writes of the "terrible and terrifying habit of viewing the past as inevitable." When history is taken as a record of what had to happen, when texts record as inexorable the emergence of a nation and the abjection of other peoples, the composition of history and the fashioning of narrative can become exercises in justification and excuse making rather than the opening up of the past to its fullest potentiality. To quote Davies once more, just because four well-bounded countries occupied Britain and Ireland by the end of the Middle Ages, "it need not, of course, have been so."

A similar mixture of chance and strategy accounts for the genesis of the communal identities of the peoples dwelling on these islands in the Middle Ages. None had necessarily to recognize themselves as constituting a distinct community, as a people set solidly apart from others. The fact that they did so should not obscure the contingencies behind the emergence of these separations, the ample potential that existed for history to have unfolded otherwise. Collective names can have profound historical effects, especially as categories humans deploy against each other or to delimit their own identities. Yet despite the stories such peoples tell themselves and announce to others, these groups typically possess limited internal homogeneity, and are never endowed with some core essence immune to historical change. Though nationalistic dreams posit enduring racial groups like the Romans, the Saxons or even the Jews and attempt to maintain such imagined purities through endogamy, intermingling and mutability are in fact human constants. When communal identities are built upon the embrace of a single language, culture, history, then variation and diversity can be difficult to discern. Yet heterogeneity and excluded difference lurk, banished perhaps to dwell underground and out of sight, but surfacing irregularly and in surprising forms.

Britain had once been part of an island chain as enmeshed with Ireland and Scandinavia as with Europe and the Mediterranean. It was once an expanse that, as William of Newburgh feared, did consist of infinita regna, "infinite realms." This multiplicity of dominions varied in size, stability, duration, cultural composition. Though the island of Britain eventually came to be dominated by a single one of its kingdoms, this ascendant England never did fully absorb or anglicize the hybridity, the obdurate and enduring differences out of which it had been formed.

The Infinite Realms Project
Though their authors invoke many recent critics for their inspiration, the essays collected in Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain build upon long scholarly tradition, employing commodious frames for the study of what otherwise might be seen as isolated national literatures. Working almost a century ago, Roger Sherman Loomis could be said to be the first modern postcolonial theorist of the British Isles, arguing that English romance had absorbed (none too graciously) much of its material from Irish, Scottish, and Welsh sources, and implicitly linking this incorporation to the kingdom’s cultural conquest of its Celtic Fringe. Over time medievalists have refined such study of cultural imperialism and commingling, stressing the uneven arrangements of power inherent in cultural contact. This volume is in fact something of a companion to The Postcolonial Middle Ages, a collection of essays that attempted to emplace medieval texts within the context of a heterogeneous and self-divided world stretching from Britain to the shores of the Mediterranean. Our mission here is likewise that of provincializing England (to play upon the title of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe), of viewing the kingdom and its capital city within a lens so wide that it is no longer the world’s umbilicus, but one center among many, and not necessarily the actor of greatest importance.

Like more traditional scholarship in medieval studies, much postcolonial medieval analysis has tended to be international in its focus, placing England within a European context. Such a perspective is invaluable, especially because through examination of the crusades it typically stretches geographically to the Levant, effectively challenging any tendency towards parochialism. Yet this critical trajectory can sometimes lead too swiftly away from the archipelago where it commences. When England is tied more closely to distant nations and events than to the polities, peoples, and cultures with which the kingdom shared an island, and indeed a history, an understanding of the insular past in its full complexity can be constrained. Even in texts written within an England that might seem internally monolithic or homogenous, this book’s authors find portals to strangely contiguous other worlds where recalcitrant differences, abiding possibilities, and alternative histories vivaciously endure. Francophone Normans and Jews, for example, inhabited the kingdom from the eleventh century – as did at various times Flemings, Italians, Danes, Welsh, Irish, Scots. Though the Normans eventually assimilated into the population they had rendered subaltern in 1066, the Jews served as England’s most contemplated minority population even after wholesale expulsion in 1290. Because of their religious, cultural, and (in the terms of the day) racial difference, the Jews appear in medieval English texts with an obsessive regularity out of all proportion to their actual numbers in the country. Jewish presence therefore figures large in the essays that follow.

Since this volume undertakes to find truth in what William of Newburgh dismissed as a mere dream of an unbounded insular past, Cultural Diversity in Medieval Britain could as easily have been entitled the Infinite Realms Project. Through close readings of medieval texts (some widely familiar, many less so), the contributors attempt to read England as a single – if singularly powerful -- entity within a dispersive geopolitical network, within a capacious world. The contributors to this volume seek moments of cultural admixture and heterogeneity within texts that have often been assumed to belong to a single, national canon, discovering moments when familiar and bounded space erupts with infinita regna, kingdoms without number. This sudden door opening in a neighborhood tumulus invites those who would listen to the stories told by its subterranean congregants to hear narratives conjoining England, Britain, Sicily, Bohemia, Wales, Scotland, Normandy: other realms and other worlds.

Suzanne Conklin Akbari opens the volume with an essay intimately connecting Anglo-Norman literature to a worldwide network of culture and power. “Between Diaspora and Conquest: Norman Assimilation in Marie de France’s Esope and Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis,” reexamines Anglo-Norman identity through the comparative study of Norman Sicily and England. Inspired by Horden and Purcell’s comparative Mediterranean history, Akbari argues that peoples are best understood as participants in vast cultural flows resting upon major geographical structures. Spanning Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, Norman culture of the Middle Ages was linked by sea routes that provided a economic and cultural continuity. Simultaneously, however, Norman identity evolved in dramatically different forms in France, England, Italy, and Sicily. In twelfth-century Sicily, Norman government sought to constitute a polity that sublimated ethnic and religious difference under the banner of the shared language of Arabic and a common administrative system. In twelfth-century England under Henry II, a heterogeneous collection of nations were also assimilated into a communal culture, but by very different means. Through a close reading of Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis and Marie de France’s Esope, Akbari illustrates how the emergence of the frame tale narrative in twelfth-century Norman England mirrored forms of cultural assimilation that were simultaneously taking place. In a coda to the essay, she considers the cultural resonance emerging from a Hebrew adaptation of Marie de France, “The Story of King Solomon’s Daughter.”

With “Reliquia: Writing Relics in Anglo-Norman Durham,” Heather Blurton continues the focus upon the Normans, this time in a regional English context. Whether the poem known as Durham represents the last gasp of Old English or the first breath of early Middle English has been the central question of the text’s analysis. Blurton considers this mediality from a different angle, reading the poem as a document produced in the midst of the power struggle in post-Conquest Durham. Like an Old English riddle that does not name its object of description, Durham omits mention of the city’s most distinctive feature, the spectacular cathedral under construction at the moment of its composition. The poem instead describes the relics of saintly English kings, abbots and bishops and enshrines them in a poem that is artfully crafted in Anglo-Saxon poetic form and language. The poem’s single macaronism, “reliquia,” is, in Blurton’s reading, the key to the work’s meaning. Durham offers itself simultaneously as a reliquary for the past as well as a relic of that past. Its language and poetic form suggest that the poem is of much greater antiquity than it is -- but not for purposes politically nostalgic. In the early twelfth century, the monks of Durham were diligently engaged in creating textual evidence to buttress their community’s claims specifically to Cuthbert’s patrimony, and more generally to the power of the monastic community of the cathedral priory against that of the bishop and castle. Instead of understanding Durham as a transitional text, suspended between Old and Middle English, Blurton sees the poem as caught between two structures of power in early Anglo-Norman Durham, between castle and cathedral.

David Townsend deepens this emphasis on language, vernacularity, and corporate identity with “Cultural Difference and the Meaning of Latinity in Asser’s Life of King Alfred.” The Welsh priest Asser’s text is often read as a principal site of ninth-century West Saxon hegemonic consolidation, the coming into being of Alfred’s English nation. Townsend argues, however, that this biographical account of Alfred’s rise to power contains in its rhetorical pragmatics an implicit, and often overlooked, assertion of enduring cultural diversity in Britain. Rather than obliterating differences among peoples in the service of a unitary, homogeneous, alienated perspective, Asser’s Latinity deploys the metropolitan language of early medieval high culture to maintain a space for local difference. Such difference must exist in tension with the assimilative claims of the newly ascendant vernacular, but it need not be obliterated or abandoned by those for whom it holds definitional power. The possibility of local positionalities being refracted through the medium of Asser’s Latinity suggests a far more complex model of the relationship of medieval Latin as a metropolitan language to the articulation of local subjectivities.

Cultural heterogeneity beneath what may appear to be monolithic sameness is also theme of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Green Children from Another World, or The Archipelago in England.” Cohen turns to a late twelfth-century Latin text to study how tensions around colonization and assimilation found “subterranean” voice in the long wake of the Norman conquest. The English historian William of Newburgh narrated a vivid tale of green children emerging from the ground in contemporary East Anglia. Seeming arrivals from a distant world, these strange siblings differed from their English discoverers in language, clothing, customs – differed, in the end, in their race. Yet neither the boy nor the girl is as alien as they initially appeared. Once taught to eat local food, they lose their viridescence; once taught to speak English, they narrate their origin in a land that for all its distance touches England intimately. The account of the Green Children surfaces two stories that William of Newburgh cannot otherwise tell: how the Normans who had conquered the kingdom had vanished from the country without ever leaving, and how the contemporary nation had never come adequately to terms with the Britain that it pretended to have subsumed, with the archipelago of cultural difference and intractable hybridity dwelling still within.

Michael Wenthe likewise studies the difficulties of supposing discrete and enduring collective identities after the Norman conquest. “Beyond British Boundaries in the Historia regum Britanniae” argues that in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur's preeminence among the insular regents paradoxically depends upon his challenge to traditional understanding and preservation of British peoplehood. Arthur begins his reign as a champion who restores his people's fortunes within the island, but ends as the master of an international empire drawing allies drawn from diverse geographies. Arthur's federated approach to rule and his accommodation of foreigners among his counselors temper the force of British domination and ultimately color the sense of Britishness itself. The king's efforts to extend the British nation beyond Britain (and beyond Britons) challenge the conception of Britishness established by the nation-founder Brutus, rooted in ethnicity and place. Arthur's move toward hybridization and against traditional binarisms is thwarted by Mordred's rebellion, a rejection spurred by atavistic desire for a simpler expression of identity that depends on a purity imposed through exclusion. The limits of both Arthur's model of nationhood and Mordred's response can be seen in Arthur's failure to sustain his achievement and in Geoffrey's supersessionistic history, a history that repeatedly chronicles the replacement of one dominant group within Britain by another.

Kathleen Biddick extends this focus upon Geoffrey of Monmouth and island identities in “Arthur’s Two Bodies and the Bare Life of the Archives.” Biddick examines how the History of the Kings of Britain constitutes a formative moment in the medieval fabrication of what Ernst Kantorowicz called “the king’s two bodies,” the enduring body politic and the mortal body natural. Biddick demonstrates how archival practices were intrinsic to this invention, lodging themselves deep within Geoffrey’s text. The essay observes how the accounts of the Pipe Rolls trace the bureaucratic involvement of archdiaconal circles (in which Geoffrey moved) with the Crown; it examines archdiaconal anxieties over petty geographical jurisdiction as expressed in the Leges Edwardi Confessoris (Laws of Edward the Confessor), and it traces their theological notions of sovereignty as echoed in Norman Anonymous. According to Biddick, Geoffrey stages the archival violence at stake in fabricating the king’s second, divine body by bracketing his History with massacre, employing the Latin cognates of caedes [“carnage, slaughter”] to form these brackets. His use of massacre converges with contemporary Jewish concepts of the archive as the porphyrion, a vestment capable of transcribing every drop of blood of massacred Jews. The essay reflects on the political theology of mundane bureaucratic archives and archives of trauma at the edges of Geoffrey’s history.

As residents in a nation dissimilar in custom, ritual language, and religion, Jews in England found themselves objects of cultural fascination even after the Expulsion of 1290. Randy P. Schiff examines the role Jews played in a text composed after this forced departure. “The Instructive Other Within: Secularized Jews in The Siege of Jerusalem” argues that the alliterative romance should be read in the context of the contemporary collapse of the fantasy of English insular overlordship. Scholars have recoiled at the Siege’s endorsement of violence inflicted on Jews, reading the siege as Christ’s vengeance upon the citizens of Jerusalem. Schiff warns, however, that given the poem’s problematization of clear ethnic identification, critics should be hesitant to ascribe to the text a simple or reductive understanding of what the figure of the Jew means. Reflecting upon a Britain enmeshed in the painful, often violent process of border-formation, the author portrays the Jews as daunting insurgents rather than religious purists, undermining the theological pretensions of a Roman war machine – a machine motivated more by plunder than by its putative Christianity. By manipulating his sources to make a refusal of tribute trigger the Roman invasion, the Siege-poet links the Jews with the Arthurian rebels of romance, a genre ambivalently situated with respect to English empire. Apparently originating in western Yorkshire, the text speaks more to the bloody raids and sieges conducted by the Scots and English in the process of forming British borders —and perhaps also to the trauma of the 1190 massacre of Jews in Clifford’s Tower in York—than it does to abstract theological interests. Much as the Jew, for Langland, acts as ethical instructor to English society, so does the Siege of Jerusalem secularize its narrative events so as to release the ambivalent energies of a Jewish Other who reveals the limits of an unchecked English expansionism.

Katherine Terrell brings us to the center of the Scotland at the edges of Schiff’s essay with “Subversive Histories: Strategies of Identity in Scottish Historiography.” Terrell examines Scottish historiographical responses to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s myth of Brutus, a myth that repeatedly invoked in support of England’s colonialist ambitions toward Scotland. Discussing responses to Geoffrey’s myth in early fourteenth-century diplomatic texts and John of Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum, the essay argues that even as Scottish chroniclers established spatial and temporal boundaries to enforce the idea of a natural and autonomous Scottish identity, their persistently dialogic engagement with Geoffrey’s text reveals the hybridity underlying their constructions of identity. These chroniclers’ responses to Geoffrey cannot therefore be simply characterized as either unambiguously hostile or as complicit in what R. R. Davies has called the “Anglicization of the British Isles.” Rather, Terrell contends, the chroniclers resist English aggression as much by appropriating and adapting Geoffrey’s highly effective narrative strategies as by directly challenging his authority.

Jon Kenneth Williams looks closely at the literature of another people who felt the force of English expansionism throughout the Middle Ages, the Welsh. “Sleeping with an Elephant: Wales and England in the Mabinogion” proposes that several pieces of Middle Welsh literature lay a theoretical groundwork that would enable the Welsh to perpetuate their language and culture in an age of seemingly inalterable foreign political and military occupation. "Culhwch and Olwen," the oldest Arthurian narrative, describes the island of Britain as a geography always and already marked by invasion and colonization, negating the Welsh myth of entitlement to the whole of the island. "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" in turn encourages its audience to be of service to the occupier, literarily Roman but historically English, so that the Welsh language might be preserved. Finally, the third branch of the Mabinogi, "Manawydan Son of Llyr," uses (in Williams’ account) gentle satire to acknowledge the inescapable economic might of England. In so doing, the work playfully draws into sharp relief the twin worlds of the Wales of myth and the England of the medieval market economy, providing a vision of Welsh ability that is both striking optimistic and pragmatic.

Legendary histories, mythic foundations, and practical political considerations are likewise at the heart of John Ganim’s “Chaucer and the War of the Maidens.” Scholars have long puzzled why in the Knight's Tale Chaucer so severely shortens the spectacular battle against the Amazons as it was developed in his chief source, Boccaccio's Teseide, depending instead on the briefer account in Statius' Thebeid. Ganim speculates that the Amazonian materials acquired a new, unstable charge with the arrival of Anne of Bohemia and her marriage to Richard II. It is likely that the stories of the legendary founding of Prague by a prophetic female leader and through an associated battle against Amazon-like women (usually referred to as the "War of the Maidens") accompanied Anne and her courtiers to England. Recent scholarship on Queen Anne has provided a new window into our understanding of Chaucer and his culturally complex poetry. Ganim’s contribution to this new emphasis is to suggest that traces of the legendary history of Bohemia can be located in the political unconscious of the Knight's Tale and perhaps in Chaucer's intricate deployment of gender as local topic and as political metaphor. Even it is impossible to prove that Chaucer was aware of the cultural freight of the female foundation of Queen Anne's homeland, Ganim provocatively points to striking analogues to the ways in which Chaucer deploys the powers of his Bohemianized women. In those works by Chaucer connected in some fashion to Anne and her native land, he finds an uncannily similar dispersal and division of female power.

Eileen Joy also details how gender functions in tales of violent masculine adventure and cultural colonization in her temporally intercut essay “The Signs and Location of a Flight (or Return?) of Time: The Old English Wonders of the East and the Gujarat Massacre” Joy places the mass sexual mutilation, torture, and brutal murder of hundreds of Muslim women in Gujarat alongside the lines of the Old English Wonders of the East describing Alexander’s murder of giant women “unworthy in their bodies.” She argues that we can glimpse in both events a violence that can be understood to participate in what Dominick LaCapra, writing about the Holocaust, has described as a “deranged sacrificialism.” Such violence is occasioned by the attempt to get rid of stranger-Others as “phobic or ritually impure objects” that are believed to pollute the Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people). Both cases—one terrifyingly real, the other purely fictional—also reveal persistent social anxieties about the female body as formless contagion. Out of the horror and disgust that arises in the encounter with the female body perceived as monstrous, Joy traces an ancient and ritualized type of violence that is both morally condemnatory and ecstatic, and which can be seen, to a greater and more restrained degree, respectively, in the Gujarat genocide and the Old English text.

Eileen Joy’s essay leaves us in the very place we began: in a world that is culturally complicated, full of brutality based upon real and imagined differences, not much closer than medieval England was to realizing that the Other Worlds we banish to our undergrounds are in fact coextensive with our own.

1 comment:

dtkline said...

Congratulations on completion and publication, Jeffrey (and to Eileen for her essay). Green Children? Wazza? Can't wait to see it.