Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Quote of the Day: Mock Medieval

From Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages:

What lies under the surface of Mock [the pseudo-medieval speech beloved of films and Medieval Times dinner theatre and Renaissance Fairs], the thing that makes it sound all right even though only a moment's reflection exposes its ludicrous conceit, is the unspoken sense that medieval people were very odd and they knew it. Mock has the effect of casting medieval men and women as the dimly self-aware spokespersons of a sense of difference and detachment that in reality, of course, only exists in our modern perception of them, not in their contemporary awareness. They probably could not quite put their finger on it, so Mock implies, but they somehow sensed that they were primitive, crude, or whatever stereotype one wants to apply, and that better times, progress, lay somewhere in the future. Mock, in other words, makes medieval people sound like actors in their own costume drama. (138)

Why post such a quote, other than its inherent interest and fun use of the word Mock? Well, I'm halfway through a book that argues medieval people were in fact perfectly capable of grasping the ridiculousness of their own performance of the self:

For example, at what point if ever might it have occurred to twelfth-century French courtiers that a room decked out in rugs, silks and other finery might look less like an affirmation of the prestige of that milieu than evidence of medieval vernacular cultures as aquisitive, shoulder-chipped wannabes in relation to the wealth and sophistication of of their Byzantine and Islamic neighbours? The question that then arises is how self-conscious that appropriation was, how alive or occluded the strangeness internal to the senses of self they constructed were as well as how evolved was the reflection on how troubling or useful different sources of strangeness could be. (15)

That quote is from this book by James R. Simpson. More anon.


Karl Steel said...

Does Simpson talk about Ottonian Germany? Ever since learning about the cross-cultural contacts between tenth-century Germany and Byzantium in, say, manuscript illustration and layout, I've been wanting to know more--or have someone tell me--about this early Renaissance. What seems to distinguish this particular imitation/appropriation of the Roman Empire from early (Carolingian) and later versions is the fact that Byzantium was a presently existing empire; did the Ottonians think they were transversing time and space in their imitation of Byzantium and their intermarriage with Byzantines? How did time, nostalgia, and imitation work in this tenth-century court?

As for this:
Mock implies, but they somehow sensed that they were primitive, crude, or whatever stereotype one wants to apply, and that better times, progress,

Bull's formulation is tempting, but I think totalizing. Since my late late bedtime reading (i.e., the reading I do when I simply can't think anymore) over the past few days has been the LOTR, I'm aware--painfully aware, really, given the weird combination of pre-Raphaelitism and Anglo-Saxon that constitutes Tolkien's prose style--that Tolkien means to imply that our language has lost its magic, its dignity, its connection to the elder things and the authentic beauty of the past. In other words, the thees and thous of ye olde medieval times are, at least, at once a sign of contempt AND longing, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Well I am constantly an actor in my own costume dramas

… talking of which – this is my quote of the day: Among the subjects all dressed in uniforms sewn of legal categories, is la vita nuda, a ‘bare’, purely corporeal life denied all legally woven significance.


“The extent of territory was coeval with the extent of sovereignty. ‘Sovereignty’
(according to Carl Schmitt’s synthesis of modern practice, as recently
re-examined by Giorgio Agamben2) was all about the power to include or
exempt. The sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception. But let us
note that it is precisely the territoriality of power that makes of the capacity
of exemption such an awesome weapon of the sovereign authority – indeed
the constitutive factor of its ‘materiality’. The sovereign is a sovereign in as
far as he or she controls the admission to the House of Law. Whoever happens
to be bodily present inside the territorial boundaries of the sovereign state,
falls under that control. Inside a territory in which every subject is allocated
its rightful place, an entity exempted from allocation and so denied a place of
its own is stripped of rights – carries no rights that other subjects have the
obligation (state-imposed and state-policed) to respect. Among the subjects
all dressed in uniforms sewn of legal categories, it is la vita nuda, a ‘bare’,
purely corporeal life denied all legally woven significance. A ‘sovereign territory’
is the artefact of its own map: an impression left on the physical space
filled with human bodies by the tightly woven canvas of legal categories.”
Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Utopia with no Topos’, History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 16, No. 1, 11-25 (2003)

Sumptuary legislation, whispers anyone – as a place for a contemporary theatre of the absurd.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Karl about "Mock." There is a sense, I think, that the King James Bible is more "biblical sounding" to many people because of its "thees" and "thous." It sounds "old," of course, but also somehow more authoritative. I guess it all depends on context. At Medieval Times it may come across as silly, but it's expected in places where there's less overt camp (such as LOTR).

Anonymous said...

In response to Karl Steel's question, the short and accurate answer is 'no, I don't, although those are very interesting points'. However, at that point in the discussion, I was partly talking about the parody epic 'The Voyage of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople' (so the Byzantine connection was very much in my mind) and partly thinking of one of the displays in the medieval collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which had the useful effect of amassing enough artefacts that it brought that question to mind. The other element in the DNA at that point was James Harper's article on 'Turks as Trojans' in that CUP collection from a few years back. Sorry to be vague in the referencing, but I'm not on my own computer and the friends with which I'm staying want to take the dogs for a walk, so if I start googling for the details, I'll be being discourteous.

On another front, this is the first time I've responded in a blog to a comment about my own work, and it feels faintly like walking over your own grave... Does anyone else ever have that feeling?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Actually, Jim, I think posting on a post about your own book is just the opposite of treading your grave: it's giving quick-pulsed life to somethin that might not possess it otherwise. A blog allows an immediate conversation about a book, even before it is published. A book review comes years later, and is typically a Pronouncement about something already rather old, not an invitation to conversation about a living thing.

Anonymous said...

That's what I think I should think, so many thanks for the supportive response. Still adjusting to the possibilities of the medium, however. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, 'this may feel a little weird...'. Not saying I'm Neo -- just a neophyte here. That said, I'm also put in mind of Jacques Derrida's comment, 'your books are like your children: they can answer you back in ways you could never possibly imagine.' The step on from that is to see the book as an organ without a body, with all the uncanny dimensions that go with that particular territory. Anyhow, now I'm rambling. As Mr Burns said, 'they're my issues and I'll deal with them in my own time'... Questions, comments and responses on the book welcome. (Karl -- I'm still thinking about your point about Byzantium as 'presently existing'. I suspect part of the issue here is what different communities saw as the present in their terms. After all, for the Empire to exist in the present implies an intrusion of past time, wherein lies the problem I think you can see Chretien negotiating and indeed playing with. This of course takes us back to our esteemed host's 'Introduction: Midcolonial' piece...)

Oh, and, if anyone reads it, when you get to about p. 157 and the Greek scripting in the Plutarch quotation goes wrong: that's the press's fault. So is the stray carriage return. The rest is down to me.

Karl Steel said...

Of course, JS, my questions are unfair for a book about Erec and Enide, if we think of them as directed at rather than inspired by your book, especially that I've (as yet) seen only what Jeffrey posted here.

Unfortunately, my questions, as they're currently posed, probably represent the extent of my thinking on the issue. I suspect part of the issue here is what different communities saw as the present in their terms. I agree wholeheartedly. I suppose my question--and this is getting us VERY far afield--has to do with the difference between renewing/restarting the Roman Empire and doing cultural/conjugal business with an Empire, however attenuated, that has good claims to representing an unbroken connection to the Empire (as if, say, the translatio imperii got jammed up in (at?) the Bosporus); but it does seem that part of the West's (broadly understood!) problem with Byzantium was its being an Empire out of its time (hence the depiction of them as decrepit? But now I've left behind Ottonian Germany, which I know even left about...and now I'm sort of spinning my wheels...

You see what one can do on a blog: get oneself into playful muddles that could, well, sink a burgeoning (in my case) career if they saw print in a 'real' venue. Low stakes wondering.

I'm just glad that your, er, "grave walking" has gone better than it has for other senior scholars who have dropped in.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Interesting post, interesting comments!

I came to Canada from someplace else, and have been confronted again and again with the attitude (hardly universal) that nothing important happens in Canada. If I felt that way I'd leave. But this is not practical for all the complainers, or else they just like to complain. What such Canadians usually do is visualize Canada as part of a political or cultural empire, or both, back in the day as part of the British (anti-Yankee) empire, now as part of the American empire (to which maybe Britain also belongs; at least until Basra's completely evacuated).

So I can easily visualize that medieval Islamic carpet as both a source of pride and resentment; pride in being cooler and richer than everyone else in the area, resentment in knowing that somewhere somebody with even better carpets knows you are not only an infidel, but a hick.

Anonymous said...

Karl -- Sorry not to respond sooner, but it's been beginning of semester cheery here. In response to your last posting, the only thing that would worry me is the use of the term 'senior'. But then no one else ever set out to get old either. Apart from that, the new context is growing on me.

I think the phrase 'empire out of time' is precisely the point, as that 'out of joint' quality is arguably something we can see in all sorts of medieval (and not just medieval) attempts to create links with prestige 'past' cultures.

As for Steve's post -- yup, that carpet is what it's all about. In the Voyage of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople, my discussion of which is the bit Jeffrey cited, the point is that the Franks look like hicks not merely when they are presented looking at the marvels of Constantinople in envious amazement, but even -- and perhaps especially -- when they are showered with relics in Jerusalem. Even what seem to be the marks of divine favour show them up as culturally subaltern. I was using Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincialising Europe for these aspects of the discussion... If you've not had the pleasure, it's a fascinating read. One particular piece was a quote from an anonymous Indian poet writing in the early 1950s:

"To the memory of the
British Empire in India
Which conferred subjecthood on us
But withheld citizenship;
To which yet
Everyone of us threw out the challenge
‘Civis Britanicus Sum’
All that was good and living
Within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British colonial rule."

As I ended up saying, the issues this poem raises about literary subjectivity and national identity map very interestingly onto a medieval context in which authors aware of the shadow cast by Suetonius, Lucan, Virgil and Ovid over their work are trying to carve out their own cultural elbow room.