Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Race, and Women

Yesterday in my Myths of Britain class I taught the segment of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain that begins with the birth of Brutus and ends with the discovery of demon-born Merlin -- quite a chunk. We take a special interest in this course in those whose stories are alluded to but not fully narrated within the larger histories that feature them: Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel, or his mom, or Wealtheow, or Hondscio. With Geoffrey we spoke about his interest in some strong female characters.

Below is a section of my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain relevant to the topic. It was fun to revisit the subject with eighty interlocutors.

(parts of this have appeared at ITM previously. Please see the book version for proper footnotes and references)
No matter what else the text might be, the History of the Kings of Britain is a foundation myth. As the twelfth-century Welsh who found in its narrative the promise of glory to come would attest, the History gives solidity and continuity to a dispersed people. It could legitimate the promulgation of a communal identity based upon shared history. By projecting a Norman mode of kingship and conquest into the past, it also implicitly buttresses the Norman conquest, and reinforces the distinctiveness of both the Normans and the Britons from the English. Perhaps this desire to keep the insular peoples distinct explains why the text recurrently envalues purity of blood.

When a womanless band of Picts arrive from Scythia and ask the Britons for wives, they firmly refuse to intermarry with such an inferior race (4.17). Once the fiercely expansionist leader Maximianus subdues Gaul, he imports a population of Britons for the area. Conanus Meriadocus, left in charge of this "second Britain," strives "to prevent any mixture of blood" between colonists and indigenes. Conanus therefore has seventy-one thousand women imported from the homeland (5.15). The misplaced passion of Brennius for a Danish princess almost causes Britain's ruin (3.2). Part of the great evil of Vortigern, the tyrant who improvidently invites the Saxons into Britain as mercenaries, is his refusal to respect the separation of peoples. He allows "pagans to mingle with the local population" (8.2), degenerating his kingdom to the point at which "no one could tell who was a pagan and who was a Christian, for the pagans were associating with [British] daughters and female relations" (6.13). Vortigern himself marries Renwein, daughter of the Saxon leader Hengest (6.12). Vortimer, Vortigern's pure-blooded son by a previous wife, rises against his father in an attempt to take Britain back for the Britons; he is poisoned by his treacherous stepmother (6.14). Perhaps a certain magical pool described to a wide-eyed Arthur says it all. Naturally fashioned in the shape of a perfect square, the pool harbors four types of fish, and "the fish of any one corner were never found in any of the others" (9.7). Substitute Britons, Picts, Scots and Saxons for the allegorical fish and Britain suddenly becomes perfectly unmixed, impossibly pure.

Square pools do not exist in nature, nor do fish self-segregate; that is why the pool is a marvel. In Geoffrey's British history, despite the fact that the purity of collective identities is so often declared paramount, peoples nonetheless intermingle. Just like the Norman-English and Norman-Welsh unions of Geoffrey's day, these couplings produce children who carry in their blood a compound heritage. At first glance, it seems that such mixed blood progeny cannot fare well. Assaracus, son of a Trojan mother and Greek father, agrees to help the exiled Brutus because of his anger at having been disinherited by a brother of undiluted blood. Brutus is happy to employ the man so long as he is useful, but the Trojan's subsequent talk of preserving the "purity of noble blood" suggests what he really thinks of his mongrel ally (1.4). Habren, the daughter of king Locrinus by a German concubine, is hurled into a river by his angry wife (2.5). Bassianus, the son of a Roman puppet ruler through a British woman, finds himself raised to the insular throne because his people prefer him over his brother of pure Roman descent (5.2). His reign is quite short, however, because a man named Carausius, humbly born but of untainted British ancestry, rallies the Britons to "massacre the Romans and wipe them out of existence and so free the whole island of that foreign race." The half-blood Bassianus soon lies dead on the battlefield (5.3).

Yet Constantine, the son of a Roman named Constantius and the Briton Helen, becomes not only the king of the whole island but emperor of Rome, "overlord of the whole world" (5.8). The founding father of the Britons, Brutus himself, takes the Greek princess Ignoge for his wife, mixing his genealogical line with that of an inveterate enemy. It could perhaps be argued that only the race of the father counts in a patriarchal society, overwriting or overcoding the blood of the mother. Such a model seems almost Aristotelian. The mother contributes inert matter to the child, the father gives identity and life. Thus Earl Morcar, an English rebel against the Conqueror, had a sister named Ealdgyth. She bore a daughter to her first husband, Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, upon whom was bestowed the resonantly Welsh name of Nest. Ealdgyth also had a son by her second spouse, King Harold II of England. This Ulf carried an Anglo-Scandinavian appellation that well embodied his royal father 's own heritage. In both cases the descent of the father determines the child's name. Perhaps, then, the children of Brutus are just as Trojan, and therefore just as British, as he.

Yet carrying the blood of two peoples in the History of the Kings of Britain seldom allows a singular or stable identity to be embraced, or for a dual ancestry to be forgotten. Despite the bias in favor of the separateness of the insular peoples throughout the History, in the actual unfolding of historical events Geoffrey demonstrates the impossibility – and sometimes even the sheer destructiveness – of rejecting out of hand hybridity and difficult middles. Attempts to maintain purity of blood invariably fail. Contrary to the British prohibition against taking their women as wives, the Picts do just that, "intermarrying more and more with the Britons" (5.3). These marriages are enabled by Carausius, the pure-blooded Briton who rallied his people to commit genocide against the Romans to keep the island free of foreigners. The intermingling of Saxons with Britons enabled by Vortigern cannot simply be undone, for in the wake of widespread intermarriage pagans and the Christians become indistinguishable (6.13). The desire of Conanus Meriadocus to prevent his soldiers from mixing with the Gauls spectacularly backfires when he sends to Britain for suitable wives. Of the 71,000 women shipped across the channel to meet his demand, the luckiest drown when their ships founder. The remainder is blown so far off course that randy barbarians either slay or enslave them (5.16). Conanus Meriadocus and his men, we must assume, were forced to take their brides from Gaul after all. Even Cadwallo, Geoffrey's reinvented and newly heroic leader of the Britons against the treacherous Saxons, is said to take a sister of Peanda of Mercia as his wife. Their son, Cadwallader, presides over the final loss of British hegemony on the island.

As Peggy McCracken has written in her penetrating analysis of the role of women's blood in medieval literature, descent might be claimed from the father, but the mother's contribution to her offspring's identity can never be completely effaced. Blood, especially when it comes from a woman, tends to be multivalent. A similar observation might be advanced more generally about women's roles in twelfth century historiography, especially in their relation to collective identity. Although from time to time a powerful female figure will emerge (Hild, Æthelflæd, Cordelia), the chronicles of the past written at this time are for the most part accounts of the deeds of men. Geoffrey is no exception, imagining a vigorously martial world in which most of the great leaders are male. Women are seldom eligible to have their stories told. There are, of course, vivid exceptions: Gwendolen, Estrildis, Cordelia, Tonuuenna, Genvissa, Judon, Renwein, Ygerna, Guenevere, Helena. Even women not given a name by the text can sometimes have moving stories narrated about them. Take, for example, the 71,000 women assembled in London to provide wives for the Britons in Gaul. They do not know that they are doomed to perish at sea, be slaughtered by enemies, or become slaves, yet few want to abandon home and family for unknown shores. "They all had their personal wishes in the matter" Geoffrey observes (5.16). When it is acknowledged that the desires of these women are not consonant with maintaining the purity of the Briton bloodline, we realize that the community being built with them is predicated upon a coercive harmonization.

No woman's story in Geoffrey's text resonates more lastingly than that of Ignoge, the Greek princess forced to become bride to Brutus. Geoffrey of Monmouth ordinarily composes his narrative with sangfroid: little human feeling animates its accounts of battles, wonders, political intrigue, strife. He is not given to moments of aching identification such as William of Malmesbury's wrenching account of the sinking of the White Ship (Deeds 5.419). Ignoge has little presence in Geoffrey's text, but as she sets sail with a husband she never chose for a future that is wholly uncertain, we are given a lingering depiction of her last vision of her native land. The episode is at once so evocative and so moving that, as Robert Hanning observes, it "interrupts the flow" of the narrative, so that "for a moment the issues of national birth and freedom are forgotten; history itself is forgotten." Here is Geoffrey's vivid portrayal of the fading shores of home as glimpsed through bereft Ignoge's eyes:
The Trojans sailed away ... Ignoge stood on the high poop and from time to time fell fainting in the arms of Brutus. She wept and sobbed at being forced to leave her relations and her homeland; and as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze away from it. Brutus soothed and caressed her, putting his arms round her and kissing her gently. He did not cease his efforts until, worn out with crying, she fell asleep (1.11)

As Ignoge's home slowly recedes, lost are the possibilities for any life she might have desired for herself, for any history she might have dreamed. Destined to become an appendage of Brutus, the source of his progeny, we next see Ignoge in what appears to be an afterthought, legitimating the birth of three sons (2.1). She is not mentioned again. Her children divide the land and carry on their father's work. It never occurs to them that in their bodies the blood of Troy mingles with that of Greece, that they possess hybrid blood in which two enemies have uneasily been conjoined. The sons of Brutus assume that they are simply Britons, as their father christened his people. They never dwell upon the complexities of history and descent.

Ignoge's gaze opens up the possibility of another story. An alien among strangers, suspended between cultures and no longer able to be of one or the other, Ignoge embodies everything her children so easily forget. Yearning for a home that can never be hers, this princess conveyed to an unfamiliar place suggests the difficulties faced by those who carry an identity full of difference, ambivalence, conflict. Ignoge inhabits that middle space where conqueror meets conquered, where a war unfolds between loathing and desire. She looks back to a receding homeland and forward to the impossible bind of mixed progeny on an island increasingly dominated by a single people. Ignoge is Greek, her husband Trojan, her children Britons, but her tears prevent such easy separations.

Geoffrey of Monmouth dreamed of a world where at first glance history and descent keep insular peoples solitary. As his textual world unfolds in all its intricacy, however, the peoples that populate Britain mingle and become -- despite their own fervent belief to the contrary -- impure. Geoffrey's ambivalent entwining of purity with hybridity is rather like William of Malmesbury's. Both writers posited clean separations but undercut them with anxious, medial spaces: one through marvels, the other through blood. The separateness of the island's peoples might be an impossible dream, but that did not stop this dream from being passionately embraced, much to the sorrow of those who carried blood that could never seem untainted. For these impure beings history was filled with heartache, and the present never ceased to hurt.


Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey--excellent timing on posting from "Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity," which I was reading portions of last night as part of my preparation for a guest teaching stint I am undertaking tomorrow at Wake Forest University for a course titled, "The Other Middle Ages," led by Gillian Overing and Ulrike Weithaus. I sent a reading to the students--an excerpt from Francois Hartog's "The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History"--that deals with the questions of frontiers [both geographical and cultural] in relation to Otherness. More specifically, the excerpt I provided for the students details two stories from Part IV of Hetodotus's "History" about Anacharsis and Scylas: two Scythians who, in different ways, transgressed their "native" culture by "going Greek" [although we have to always remember that Herodotus is telling these stories]. Both stories involve hybrid identities--in the case of Scylas, his mother was a Greek, and he also secretly marries a Greek women. In both stories, the two men make the fatal mistake of participating in Greek religious mysteries, which leads to their executions at the hands of the Scythians who, although they were aware of these two Scythians' cultural waywardness, mainly were driven to murder them after having to actually *witness* the transgressions. Issues of feminization and sexual "perversity" are important components in these two stories: Scylas, for instance, is mainly guilty of secretly taking a Greek wife and having children with her and also of participating in Bacchic mysteries, and Anacharsis is guilty of retreating into a forest that, although located in Scythia, is somehow a realm apart, and where Anacharis participates in a ritualized worship of the Mother of the Gods.

I am also wanting to bring in to this class some ideas that were prevalent in Old English writing regarding the status of the foreigner, stranger, and "alien," and of what the, let's say, *ontology* of traveling might have been in Anglo-Saxon England, and all of this has to somehow tie in to "Beowulf," which the class is reading right now [and for my own purposes, the Guthlac narratives] So, cross your fingers for me, and when I return to Saint Louis, I'll hopefully have something more intelligent to say here. I *will* say now, though, that I think a very fruitful avenue for thinking through some of these issues is Sara Ahmed's writing in her book "Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality."

dan remein said...


incidentally, on 'Geoffrey.' bethca never heard that one before? wink.

but seriously. nice use of that reading of the pools and the mixing of blood for a classroom setting. i was in a grad seminar last semester and we spend a good deal of time in historiographical debate about those moments as examples of the text operating in terms of clear allegory, or in terms vague enough to tease us into figure/allegory, in the same spirit that geoffrey teases his reader wit h the 'welsh book' of the introduction. it seems, to me, significant that it would be just this kind of figure that _could_ deal with the mixing of blood in geofrrey's book, aside from his narrative positioning of various peoples. hawthorne even would have loved it--as far as figures go.