Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Disavowed Pleasures of Gowther

It's the end of the semester: classes to conclude! meetings to attend! papers to grade! exams to compose! deadlines to miss! All of us academics are nearing exhaustion.

Agreed! Agreed! And articles to proof! And write! And grants to write! But lord knows it's not as bad as adjuncting. Lord knows it's not bad at all.

Yesterday one of my students observed that "everyone thinks everyone in the Middle Ages was dirty and stupid, but you make it seem like they were just like us." My response: "Yeah...stupid." Thankfully she got the (perhaps ill-advised) joke, and I hope she gets what drove it: another attempt to drive out any sense of temporal superiority or, for that matter, nostalgia.

Strangely enough, her comment came after a class on Sir Gowther, in which I went after the familiar strange mixture of titillation and sanctimoniousness in its opening stanzas. It starts:
God, that art of myghtis most,
Fader and Sone and Holy Gost,
That bought man on Rode so dere,
Shilde us from the fowle fende,
That is about mannys sowle to shende
All tymes of the yere!
More below!

I observed that the lines looks like any of the usual invocations for a Middle English narrative (cf The Avowyng of Arthur and Emaré), but they're not in fact, at least not yet, calling down a blessing on its audience. Rather they throw up a barrier against demonic forces, whose ability to "shende" the human soul is in fact a direct result of the infernal thoughts this very poem inspires. See Neil Cartlidge, at 136, which observes that the opening stanzas problematize
the whole business of tale-telling by implicitly raising the question of discursive responsibility: for if it is accepted that describing the Devil's activities in any sense invites them [a point Cartlidge had already established], then the author's decision to tell the story of Sir Gowther has to be morally questionable.
Not only morally questionable, then, but also an invitation to bodily injury or erotic sin: for the primary demonic threat in Gowther is not to the soul: "Sumtyme the fende hadde postee / For to dele with ladies free" or, as it explains later on, demons "sarvyd never of odyr thyng / But for to tempe wemen yon." By casting its protective net over the readers, the prayer implicitly interpellates them, and its orator, the collective "us," as women-about-to-have-sex-with-(or -be-raped-by-) demons. This is, after all, what demons do, at least within the confines of this poem.

The flirtation of these newly hailed women with--or their perilous proximity to (so much depends on how we understand the demonic sex!)--infernal forces occurs simply because of the telling, and the desire for, this poem, which, according to the poem's own self-promotion, is a "ferly" or "selcowgh" thing to hear. What have we, the listeners, gotten ourselves into? Something--what, I don't quite know yet--much more than the "schame" from which the narrative voice hopes to be shielded. Something terrifying, wonderful, strange, uncanny, monstrous, something in which cupidity and fear and disavowed desire, surely the seed of shame, are inextricably intermingled.

In the most straightforward reading, that shame ("As Cryst fro schame me schyld") is the shame of relating the particular details of how demons, despite lacking bodies of their own, impregnate women. The shame here may also be the shame of lacking a proper explanation for the events of the poem: according to a scholarly consensus (see Aquinas (reply obj 6), who agrees with Augustine), demons do not impregnate women themselves, but rather artificially inseminate women with stolen semen, and thus "the person born is not the child of a demon, but of a man." Because the demonchild Gowther, in other words, should not actually be a demonchild, the shame here is in part the shame of getting the doctrine wrong and then cheekily ascribing the (willfully mistaken!) notion to the misunderstood scholars ("Therof seyus clerkus, y wotte how"). Mostly, however, I think the shame is the shame of wanting to hear this story, despite or indeed because of its dangers, a story of women suffering macerated breasts, friars thrown off cliffs, parsons hung on hooks, nuns (at least in one of the manuscripts) raped and burned to death in their own convent, a story, that is, crowded with the grand guignol of hagiography.
Jesu Cryst, that barne blythe,
Gyff hom joy, that lovus to lythe
Of ferlys that befell.
And that's the beginning of the introduction's final stanza. Give us joy indeed, and give us, but not too much, protection from the shame of our own joy. Although Robert Mills' Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture is only on my shelf, not yet read, I felt certain enough to wind things up by linking the desire for Gowther and the hagiographic pendulation between imitatio and admiratio with the purportedly pious obsession in hagiography with mutilated erogenous zones: faces, breasts, skin, genitals, the beautiful naked bodies of men and women, boys and girls, virgins mostly, made to live out, and die for, fantasies badly veiled by sanctimoniousness.

It's this reading that led to the student remarking on the medievals being just like us. Of course I've just committed a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to believe that my student, and by extension all my students, found themselves implicated, caught up, in Gowther's pious titillation of torture.

Gowther Recommended Bibliography

Blamires, Alcuin, "The twin demons of aristocratic society in Sir Gowther" Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Ed. Nicola McDonald. Manchester UP. (2004), 45-62

Cartlidge, Neil. "'Therof Seyus Clerkus': Slander, Rape and Sir Gowther", in Corinne Saunders, ed., Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England. D. S. Brewer, 2005, 135-47

(our own) Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, "The Body Hybrid: Giants, Dog-Men, and Becoming Inhuman," in Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minnesota UP, 1999, 119-141.

Gilbert, Jane, "Unnatural mothers and monstrous children in The King of Tars and Sir Gowther." Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. Essays for Felicity Riddy. Ed. Jocelyn Wogan Browne, et al. Brepols, 2000, 329-344

McGregor, Francine, "The Paternal Function in Sir Gowther." Essays in Medieval Studies 16 (1999):67-78

Saunders, Corinne J., "Symtyme the fende". Questions of rape in Sir Gowther." Studies in English Language and Literature: "Doubt wisely". Papers in honour of E.G. Stanley. Ed. M.J. Toswell and E.M. Tyler. Routledge, 1996, 286-303

Uebel, Michael. "The Foreigner Within: The Subject of Abjection in Sir Gowther." Meeting the Foreigner in the Middle Ages. Ed. Albrecht Classen. Routledge, 2002, 96-118.


Eileen Joy said...

And the other thing to think about with stories such as these is the way[s] in which they conjure, not *known* or other-where reported "shameful" stories, accounts, etc., but rather, craft completely original *situations* [amoral, evil, sinful, wicked, what-have-you]. And this raises the question: do the images and ideas of a dark human psychology inspire these stories, or *derive* inspiration from them, OR, have a mainly aesthetic [hence, safe] outlet in them?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow what a scary picture, Karl.

Great post. As you know, "Gowther" is one of my favorite ME romances. Here is a bit on incubi, giants, and so forth from a current project. It covers some familiar territory, but tries to make it relavent to more recent work. See our conversation on Augustine a long while back for its spur.

A famously obscure passage from Genesis declares of the intermezzo between the expulsion from Eden and the unleashing of the Flood:

Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis. Postquam enim ingressi sunt filii Dei ad filias hominum illaeque genuerunt. Isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi.
Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)

This passage is one of the bible's many alternate histories, dissonant little pieces of conflicting or outlying stories sedimented into but not fully incorporated by the larger narrative. Genesis, like much of the Jewish scriptures, hardened into an authoritative form long before it could become homogeneous or monolithic. These unassimilated fragments were often ignored, but sometimes because of their patent alterity became points of obsessive worry – and even catalysts to creativity and active engagement with a past come suddenly to life. Gigantes (Hebrew nephilim) born of the congress between the sons of God and the daughters of men engendered supplementary and ultimately unorthodox visions of biblical history at least from the time of the Book of Enoch (second century BC) onwards.

"Now giants were upon the earth in those days." From this oblique glimpse of archaic monsters a tradition arose in which the "sons of God" who came to the "daughters of men" were fallen angels. They copulated with Adam's children, a miscegenation which impregnated the women with horrible giants. Building upon the fragmentary narrative of inhuman sexual mingling and category violation that the obscure passage offered, medieval romance traced its own primal monster, the giant, to the rape of human women by demons or incubi. With its lascivious angels, perfidious giants and mighty men, Genesis 6:4 is the textual analogue to Augustine’s discovery of an ancient and alien bone on Utica's shore. Yet just as that tooth belongs for Augustine to a large human, the giants of Genesis are likewise for him mere mortals:

Some people, however, are worried by the statement in the Bible that the mating of those who are called 'sons of God' with the women they loved resulted in offspring who were not like men of our own kind; they were giants. These critics seem to ignore the fact even in our own time men have been born whose bodies far exceed the normal stature of men today; a fact that I have already mentioned ... Thus it is possible that giants were born even before the sons of God (also called the 'angels of God') mated with the daughters of men, which means daughters of those who live by man's standards – that is to say, before the sons of Seth married the daughters of Cain ... Now these sons of God were not angels of God in such a way that they were not also human beings as some people presuppose. Scripture itself declares without any ambiguity that they were human. (City of God 15.23)

In Augustine's account the offspring of Seth are the sons of God (filii Dei) who intermarry with the daughters of Cain (filias hominum), engendering prodigious but fully human children. In Augustine's exegesis all that is perturbing or disorienting in the Genesis story is neutralized through reduction. His euhemerized account of the episode dominated thereafter.

Augustine's interpretation was not, however, the only possible version of the narrative. The story's possibility of sex between fallen angels and women and the giants such intercourse might spawn remained a "particle of alterity" never wholly absorbed into the prevailing exegesis, lying dormant for centuries and then reigniting to trigger unanticipated narratives, even perhaps a new genre. Thus the author of the Middle English poem Cleanness offers this version of the Genesis passage:

So ferly fowled her flesch þat þe fende loked
How þe de3ter of þe douþe wern derelych fayre,
& fallen in fela3schyp with hem on folken wyse,
& engendered on hem jeauntez with her japez ille.
Þose wern men meþelez & ma3ty on vrþe,
Þat for her lodlych laykez alosed þay were
With such foulness they defiled their flesh that the devils saw that the daughters of men were extremely fair. They rushed into congress with them in the guise of men and engendered upon them giants through their evil tricks. Those were mighty and immoderate men on the earth, that for their loathly enjoyments were renowned.

What choice does God have in the face of such unauthorized comminglings of the human and inhuman than to send a deluge that will "fleme out of þe folde al þat flesch werez!" ("banish from the earth all fleshly things!" 287). Yet somehow, despite the cleansing power of this rush of waters from heaven's vault, the giants manage to survive: either by climbing mountains and keeping their nostrils above the rising tide, or by sitting upon the roof of Noah's ark, or by simply being created on earth once again by fallen angels who simply cannot resist the pleasures of union with bodies made of something more substantial than themselves.

The fragmentary narrative from Genesis even gave by the fourteenth century a new origin myth for Britain, one in which a Greek princess named Albina comes to the island’s shores in search of sovereignty and becomes the source of its aboriginal monsters. Having rejected marriage to men they consider beneath themselves, Albina and her royal sisters are exiled by their father to long wandering. They discover at the world’s edge an empty island, christening its vastness Albion after their leader. These Amazons of Albion realize the insufficiency of their attempted matriarchy when they begin to long for the company of men. The devil appears, satisfies their lust, and renders them the mothers of monsters. According to the Anonymous Riming Chronicle:

Þe fende of helle þat foule wi3t
Amonges hem al þer ali3t
& engenderd þo on hem
Geauntes þat wer strong men
& of hem come þe geauntes strong
Þat were by3eten in þis lond
For soþe to say on þis maner
Were þe geauntes bi3eten here (341-48).
[The fiend of hell, that foul creature, alit amongst them and engendered upon them giants. These were strong men, and from them came the strong giants who were begotten in this land. For, to tell the truth, this is how the giants were begotten here.]

That Britain had before its human occupation supported an indigenous population of giants derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Of the prehistory of the island Geoffrey says laconically:

At this time the island of Britain was called Albion. It was uninhabited except for a few giants.

Geoffrey never states from where the giants arrived, nor how the island received its first name. The various versions of the Albina myth were composed after Geoffrey's text, but offer a reverent prequel to his British prehistory. Grafting Geoffrey of Monmouth's story to a narrative of demon-human sexual intercourse derived from Genesis 6:4, the Albina narrative accounts for how primal giants came to inhabit British shores, and who bestowed upon the land its eldest name.

The "geauntes bi3eten here" are the progenitors of a race of monsters central to Geoffrey of Monmouth's vision of earliest Britain. These giants attack the exiled Trojan Brutus at his arrival. They represent those forces inimical to his civilizing imprint. In a foundational act of genocide he and his men will exterminate them. Brutus will become the man who bestows to the island its enduring name. Though eradicated from the island, however, these giants – like the giants of Genesis – return. Medieval romance received much of its material from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, and is replete with giants who menace chivalric heroes and must be destroyed. In the excess of their bodies, their violence, their history, the giants offer a vision of the past in disharmony with that which Augustine beheld while meditating upon a fossil as the waves broke. The bishop of Hippo preferred that the past incarnated by the object in his hand remain circumscribed and inert, a story about merely human monsters rather than the point at which an active and powerful alternative history erupts into the present. Augustine could not see the giants for the Flood. The authors of the Albina story, their biographical details lost to memory but their voices not yet become mute, beheld in those same exorbitant forms the history that could have been, and made that past alive.