Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Revelations of Divine Love and Zombies

by J J Cohen

Through a Facebook posting and the comments she compelled me to write on it, Liza Blake has made me realize that (1) there is an untapped genre of rewritten medieval texts that needs immediate tapping, and (2) Julian of Norwich was enclosed not because she chose the life of an anchoress, but because she was a flesh-eating undead creature and allowing her to roam the streets of Norwich was not in the cards. The good people of the city wanted to keep their brains inside their skulls, not on Julian's dinner plate.

Monday, September 28, 2009

SNEAK PREVIEW: The 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference--Breaking Down Barriers


I very much want to jump into all of the conversations regarding the recent discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, but I also wanted to offer a sneak preview of Wiley-Blackwell Publishers' upcoming virtual [and entirely free of charge] interdisciplinary conference, "Breaking Down Barriers," which promises to comprise the largest meeting ever of scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and which will run online from October 19th through 30th. The conference aims to cut across academic boundaries – within and between disciplines, between theory and practice, approaches and methodologies by providing a space for multi- and cross-disciplinary review. Papers will tackle one or more of the following sub-themes:
• Paradigms
• Borders
• The Environment/Energy
• Communication
• Justice/Human Rights
I myself will be presenting a keynote address relative to the thread of Justice and Human Rights: "Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny: Pre/modern, Post/human, and the Question of Being-Together," and other keynote speakers include scholars from social psychology, history, philosophy, linguistics, and physical geography. In addition, there are quite a few papers by medievalists in areas such as disability and waste studies.

Registration for the conference is entirely free at this website and registered delegates will be able to access all papers, keynote addresses and publishing workshops for free. Delegates will also be able to discuss all content and participate in the debates. Currently there are over 700 registered delegates from the U.S., U.K., South America, Canada, Australia, China, Egypt, Germany, Bosnia, India, Iran, Israel, Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan, the Netherlands, and many other countries. I see this as a timely opportunity for medievalists to enter into an invigorating global dialogue and debate with scholars in multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences who are concerned with pressing contemporary issues to which premodern studies offer critical resources for reflection.

The conference organizers are already offering sneak peeks at a wide variety of papers to be presented, and if you follow this link to the conference's website, you can see there some of those, such as the medievalist Wendy Turner's paper, "Human Rights, Royal Rights, and the Mentally Disabled in Late Medieval England," and other papers that promise fascinating discussions that touch upon subjects that have vexed and concerned us here at In The Middle, such as Adam Brown's [Deakin University] paper, "Beyond 'Good' and 'Evil': Breaking Down Binary Oppositions in Holocaust Representations of 'Privileged' Jews," as well as Daniel Wasserman Soler's [University of Virginia] "Language and Communication in the Spanish Conquest of America."

There will also be an ongoing set of informal conversations between keynote speakers and conference delegates at a cocktail bar in Second Life, which you can see more about here. So, perhaps I will "see" you there. Cheers.

Did Guthlac of Mercia bury the Staffordshire Hoard?

by J J Cohen

I've already admitted that the amulet with the Biblical inscription is my favorite item from the Staffordshire Hoard, mostly because I love its combination of text, craftsmanship, beauty ... and implicit belief in the power of words to alter the world. The Latin phrase inscribed across its gold reads: "surge d[omi]ne [et] disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua" ("rise up, oh Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee be driven from thy face") -- perfect for wearing into battle. Brandon Hawk rather brilliantly points out that the only Anglo-Saxon place we easily find this verse from Psalms and Numbers is Felix's Vita S. Guthlaci -- the Life of Saint Guthlac, a biography of a Mercian warrior who later in life became a reclusive monk plagued by demonic attacks.

The vita Felix composed surely counts as eighth century Mercian literature, so it is a text from the hoard's provenance. Guthlac himself was descended from Mercia's royal blood, and seems to have been trained to lead men into battle. He is said to have taken his name from his tribe, the Guthlacingas. For nine years in his youth he was a successful warrior. As his fame spread across the land he gathered a host of armed men "from various races and from all directions" to serve beneath him. At the age of twenty-four, though, he abandoned this life as an illustrious warrior and became a monk at Repton.

Here's what I once wrote about the vita in Medieval Identity Machines, trying to tie the text to the martial exploits of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom it describes:
That Felix was writing a saint's life for Mercia first and for the rest of Britain thereafter is made clear as Guthlac's fame spreads initially through his own country and then throughout the island, the expanding trajectory of [King] Æthelbald [of Mercia]'s own regnal power (non solum de proximis Merciorum finisbus, verum etiam de remotis Britanniae partibus, XLV). Guthlac is said to lead a warband "scraped together [Felix's odd term conrasis, probably from radere, "to shave"] from many peoples from all directions [undique diversarum gentium sociis]." The description also likely reflects the political ambitions of the Mercian ruler, and would have been just as true of his successor Offa, who seized the throne from Æthelbald's heir in 757. Both kings eventually realized their desire to rule as overlord of the "scraped together" southumbrian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, an alliance diversarum gentium ... Guthlac's biographical details construct in Felix's account a pan-insular Mercian superiority that had an ideological utility to its promulgation for quite some time, not least because Offa would soon be so eager to transform Mercia into the singular body of "England": "All this is summed up by Offa's decision from 774 onwards to call himself Rex Anglorum, king of the English ... He preferred to make southern and eastern England part of Mercia and to rename Mercia England whether their inhabitants liked it or not" (Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England 54).
And here, from Felix's vita itself, is the description of Guthlac's Beowulf-like life at the forefront a warband:
So when about nine years had passed away during which he had achieved the glorious overthrow of his persecutors, foes, and adversaries by frequent blows and devastations, at last their strength was exhausted after all the pillage, slaughter, and rapine which their arms had wrought, and being worn out, they kept peace. And so the man of blessed memory, Guthlac, was being storm-tossed amid the uncertain events of passing years, amid the gloomy clouds of life's darkness, and amid the whirling waves of the world. (XVIII)
When he "by frequent blows and devastations" overcame so many enemies, what did he do with the wealth he took from them? Did he strip their weapons of their ornament? What did Guthlac do with all the treasure he pillaged? Did he bury it as the Staffordshire Hoard?

Well, maybe. Guthlac died in 714/5. Many estimates I've seen of the hoard's date of origin give a spread from mid seventh to mid eighth century, with a tendency towards the early side of that number. So, it is possible that the hoard is Guthlac's (if not in the least bit probable).

But, more importantly, doesn't Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac, in its imagining what the life of a contemporary warrior might have been, provide us a small vision of the kind of person who might once have worn into battle a gold amulet elegantly inscribed with "surge d[omi]ne [et] disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua" -- and then who, having exhausted himself through his own success, might have settled into the solitude of a fen-locked island to contemplate what such passages from the bible mean?

[edited and updated at 3 PM]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Glow of Beauty, the Muck of History?

[annotated image: Karl Steel]
by J J Cohen

In the comments to this post, I wrote:
"One more thing, now that I've finally gone through the bajillion images in the Flickr stream: isn't it interesting how that "rich glowing effect" that Karl mentioned is achieved technologically? I'm speaking of course of the viral dissemination of the hoard images and videos (which has been great; I can't get enough), but also the ways in which the images have been made to glow via aesthetically pleasing lighting, dramatic use of shadow, artistic balance of light and dark for just the right color saturation. I love that the image Karl used for his post is labeled "NLM 675 - gold and garnet scabbard boss fitting. Press photo with reflection added. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery." Press photo with reflection added? Nothing like a little Photoshopping to bring out the beauty of the hoard... I'm not saying that to condemn, actually: I am just pointing out the collaboration that is unfolding here between ancient artifact and contemporary technology, between the A-S artist who manipulated the garnet and gold to make them shimmer, and the computer specialist who has done likewise, playing with the image to create maximum awe and covetousness."
Karl provided an annotated illustration, with a serious undercurrent: something doesn't seem quite right about the visual enhancement of the publicity image.

I'm still wondering about why several of the hoard pictures were modified (given that they are digital images, they were probably all modified, but the addition of a fake reflection seems of a different order than the balancing of contrast and or tweaking of color saturation). On the one hand, I honestly do like the collaborative nature of the image in question: Anglo-Saxon and contemporary artists ally themselves across the centuries in a shared endeavor. The beauty has its pull, as the crowds in Birmingham have made clear. Or was it history's gravity that drew the visitors to the museum, that draws us to the internet to view the hoard? Does history have its own beauty, or is the muck of history what gets cleaned away from the hoard in order to transform an earthbound concretion into discrete aesthetic objects, into lovely images?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On the Staffordshire Hoard: A Rich Glowing Effect


Briefly: By now we all know about the Staffordshire Hoard, and we've all, or nearly all, looked at the flickr set. We've all made our jokes (mine: "Incredible Lydgate hoard found: 50,000 lines of verse buried in Hoccleve manuscript! Lydgate scholars rejoice!"). I'm thrilled, and I can only imagine the excitement in the community of Anglo-Saxonists.

My interest here, though, isn't in the hoard itself (insofar as we can ever think about the thing in itself) but rather in the initial stages of its twenty-first century reception. We have Leslie Webster saying:
My first reaction on seeing the scale and nature of the beast is very much as yours - this is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh and early eighth century as radically, if not moreso, as the 1939 Sutton Hoo discoveries did; it will make historians and literary scholars review what their sources tell us, and archaeologists and art-historians rethink the chronology of metalwork and manuscripts; and it will make us all think again about rising (and failing) kingdoms and the expression of regional identities in this period, the complicated transition from paganism to Christianity, the conduct of battle and the nature of fine metalwork production - to name only a few of the many huge issues it raises. Absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.
Also see the words of Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who praises the quality of the objects ("The quantity of gold [is] amazing but, more importantly, the craftsmanship is consummate, this was the very best that the Anglo-Saxon metalworkers could do, and they were very good. Tiny garnets were cut to shape and set in a mass of cells to give a rich, glowing effect, it is stunning. Its origins are clearly the very highest-levels of Saxon aristocracy or royalty. It belonged to the elite") and genders them: "There is absolutely nothing feminine. There are no dress fittings, brooches or pendants." I expect the latter point will be worth some discussion here, as might the Hoard website's choice for an illustrative Beowulf passage, which concludes: "they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was."

I'm more interested in the claims made for the hoard. I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist; I'm not an expert in decoration; I lack the knowledge even to know what expertises I should have to judge the hoard well; so I'm happy to be corrected, educated, even sneered at a a little, in your comments. But in what sense can this hoard, a jumble of booty, be thought to promise more knowledge (and indeed points of affective and imaginative contact) than the Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells or, especially, Sutton Hoo (and comparisons between this find and SHoo are understandably frequent, even at this early stage)?

The Sutton Hoo ship burial sites record specific cultural events. The range of objects and their arrangement speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves, of an intent that valued the the objects semiotically and that arranged these signifying elements in particular object "phrases" to say something about both objects and the individual/community/culture being honored.

The Staffordshire find, on the other hand, is a jumble. If Sutton Hoo is a Henry James novel, Staffordshire is (very nearly) Tristan Tzara's Hat. Certainly, the hoard has already started to give up some cultural meaning. Leahy observes:
This is not simply loot; swords were being singled out for special treatment. If it was just gold they were after we would have found the rich fittings from sword belts. Perhaps gold fittings were stripped from the swords to depersonalise them – to remove the identity of the previous owner. The blades then being remounted and reused.
We also have Biblical verses perhaps used as war talismans; and then there's this comment, which wonders about the production sites of "glass millefiori rods." Thus what follows is perhaps already said too late.

Speaking from deep in my well of ignorance, I feel as though much of the reactions have not been so particularly learned. Instead, what I've seen suggests that we and the ancients, at least for now, have much the same fascination with this jumble: it's lovely; it's golden; it's quantitatively valuable (both in number of objects and in their material). See here for example:
Archaeologist Dr Kevin Leahy said none of the experts involved in the discovery had seen anything like it before.

He told a press conference at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: “These are the best craftsmen the Anglo Saxons have got, working with the best materials, and producing incredible results.”....

Dr Bland confirmed that copper alloy, garnets and glass objects were discovered at the undisclosed site, but the “great majority” of the treasure was gold or silver.

Experts have so far established that there are at least 650 items of gold in the haul, weighing more than 5kg (11lb), and 530 silver objects totalling more than 1kg (2.2lb) in weight....

Mr Herbert, from Burntwood, Staffordshire, has described unearthing the haul as “more fun than winning the lottery”.

“My mates at the (metal detecting) club always say that if there is a gold coin in a field, I will be the one to find it. I dread to think what they’ll say when they hear about this,” he said.
For the Mercians as for us, the objects have been stripped from their particular cultural contexts and brought together into a new cultural context, that of the 'hoard,' in which objects attract us in their quantity and quality, not as nodes in cultural sign systems. W
e have already and will continue to reconstruct the cultural field of individual objects, and that's to be praised, although I doubt we're going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo (see: well of ignorance).

But we can perhaps learn something else precisely by virtue of the hoard objects' cultural irrecoverability. I wonder what value we can get if we can also attempt to preserve our initial fascination with the hoard as a hoard, in this moment in which our desires and those of some eighth-century Mercian coincide? Can this shared desire, that emphasizes the gold, the weight, the worry about 'mates' finding out, say anything to us?

Scabbard Boss Image credit:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"postmedieval" is on Twitter


Just a quick note to let everyone know that "postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies" has its own Twitter feed:

twitter: postmedieval

If you go to the site linked above, you will see a link that will take you to a page on the official Palgrave website for the journal where a special subscription rate is being offered for members of the BABEL Working Group as well as for all authors of Palgrave's New Middle Ages book series. If you join Twitter and become a follower of "postmedieval," you will receive regular updates regarding upcoming issues, as well as links to FREE online essays that will be made available from each issue. Indeed, even before our inaugural issue "When Did We Become Post/human?" is published [April 2010], we will be making some of the essays forthcoming in that issue available for free via Twitter and other sites. Oh brave new world.

Why having a medievalist father won't necessarily assist you in your social studies homework

by J J Cohen

Tangible benefits accrue when your dad is scholar of the Middle Ages.

You might become inordinately drawn to sports involving swordplay, for example. Or you might author modern versions of medieval romances. You could create medieval-themed toys. Or enjoy languishing like a princess. All in all you will be well equipped for lifelong participation in Society for Creative Anachronism events (see illustration, dating from Februray 2002; my son Alex will kill me when he sees it here).

But when it comes to practical things, like excelling on minor social studies quizzes, your medievalist dad is likely to be of less use. Alex has a test today on definitions of medieval terms. You would think that I'd be of the greatest use possible when it comes to getting the facts straight, but alas our conversation went something like this:

Me:  Define vassalage.
Alex:  Vassalage is the state of owing ...
Me:  WRONG. A vassalage is a drinking utensil, such as a wine vassalage. It can also be a synonym for a boat or ship.
Alex: Isn't that a vessel?
Me:  Who has the PhD in this room? Define serf.
Alex: A serf is someone bound to the land who --
Me:  WRONG. Serf is what you do on the waves in Hawaii. Don't they teach you anything in school?
Alex:  I seriously doubt knights went to Hawaii. They would also sink in their chainmail if they tried to ride waves.
Me:  I think you underestimate how transnational the European Middle Ages were. They also owned armored Speedos for just such aquatic sport occasions. Define fealty.
Alex: Fealty is sworn loyalty to a --
Me:  Again, WRONG. Fealty is what happens to bread that is left out for too long, as in: "Are you sure you want to eat that slice? It looks kind of fealty."
Alex:  I think I can study for this quiz by myself, dad. Thanks.

[x-posted to Future Lost Archive]

York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre

by J J Cohen

The conference website is up.

Check out the program -- er, programme -- and, if you can, register to attend. Hope to see some ITM readers there.

Facebook friends and Twitter followers will, as usual, hear me obsess about my own talk as the time nears.

Monday, September 21, 2009

For your reading pleasure

by J J Cohen

A powerful piece about synchronicity (or not) at UD (Insider HigherEd campus); an account of Purell, purification, and a flight from church at Mended Things (the ending of which reminds me of both medieval stories of the Wild Hunt and the vision of mongrel America offered midpoint in Edward P. Jones's The Known World); Slavoj Zizek has a new book with a scary cover; yesterday I performed tashlich; the end-post for the Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely is up.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Messiah Did NOT arrive at the GW MEMSI seminar ...

by J J Cohen

... but some terribly smart people did. Thanks to the 35 audience members and three presenters who made it a success, and check back here soon for the wrap-up post. In the meantime, catch a glimpse of the seminar in action at Thinking with Shakespeare and on Facebook.

L'shana tova

by J J Cohen

Happy 5770! At left, Katherine next to the birthday cake we are making for the earth. The aquamarine marbling is the oceanic layer, the orange and yellow one the sunrise (top) layer. Needless to say, the cake when frosted will taste mostly like food coloring.

Friday, September 18, 2009

CFP: Insular Identities and the Borders of Medieval Britain

by J J Cohen, on behalf of Katherine H. Terrell

Insular Identities and the Borders of Medieval Britain
Northeast Modern Language Association, April 7-11 2010, Montreal, Quebec

While England, Scotland, and Wales each produced their own bodies of literature in the Middle Ages, their physical proximity at times engendered a sense of shared literary culture, even as the fraught political relations among them complicated any notion of a shared identity. This panel seeks to explore Britain's insular identities through an examination of its borders, and invites papers dealing with depictions of borders, bordered identities, border theory, or cross-border relations in medieval Britain. Send abstracts to Katherine H. Terrell: by 30 September.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Speaking of Benjamin, progress, the untimely ...

by J J Cohen

... theses about history, the messianic, the dead and the undead (as we will later today), see this post at golempoem.

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. Those lines have always sent a chill down my spine.

Your Poem of the Day

by J J Cohen

It's even untimely. Congratulations, Dan.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Messianic Time and the Timely, or, Mandeville and the Jews (Again)

by J J Cohen

Tomorrow the GW MEMSI seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely convenes. I offer the following in reaction to the three rich papers by Kathy Biddick, Julia Lupton, and Gil Harris ... and as a way of continuing some conversations we've had here at ITM as well.

The untimely is the antidote to the contextualizing bent of historicism, the guarantor that while something may be of its time, it can also carry within a polychronicity that wrenches it out of any meaning system built upon mere synchrony. In its temporal explosiveness messianic time is intimately related to the untimely, since it can activate the past within the present to perturb the arrival of any predetermined future (and by that phrase I mean any future that is either an infinite projection of the present into time to come, or any desired culmination of present events according to which the present moment is one step on a progress ladder that must result in and be given meaning by that coming time). Biddick's paper is the strongest argument that messianic time is not as untimely as it makes itself out to be, pointing out that Islam is inexcluded from (evacuated from, but through that same gesture installed within) both medieval typology and Walter Benjamin's thesis. This vanishing act is a concern of Harris as well ... and perhaps has to do with the fact that a point of overlaps between Christianity and Judaism is in the person/event of the Messiah.

I've written a bit on this blog about the 13th C travel narrative known as the Book of John Mandeville and its depiction of Jews: how a component of Mandeville's imagined Englishness might be his antisemitism; how the book itself perhaps contains the mechanism to critique that lapse in tolerance. As part of my Leeds keynote on Christian-Jewish neighboring, I looked closely at a Messianic passage from Mandeville that has earned endless critical scorn. Here is an excerpt from that talk:
John Mandeville, a travel writer so cosmopolitan that he renders comprehensible even the promiscuous nudist communist cannibals of Lamory, nonetheless has nothing good to say about Jews. The Book’s repeated narration of the Passion makes clear that the Jews are guilty of deicide. In relating a story about a tree in Borneo that bears poison, Mandeville states that a Jew once confessed to him that his people had attempted to eradicate all Christendom with that toxin. He describes the ten lost tribes of the Jews, Gog and Magog, enclosed within the Caspian mountains by Alexander the Great. In this remote prison they await a self-prophesied liberation during the reign of the Antichrist. Cut off from the stream of change that is time, the immured peoples speak only Hebrew. Jews living among Christians therefore teach that language to their children so that when their brethren escape captivity they will be able to communicate:

It is said that they will issue forth in the time of the Antichrist and commit a great massacre of the Christians. And therefore all the Jews who live in all lands always learn to speak Hebrew in the hope that when those of the mountains of Caspie issue forth, the other Jews will know how to talk to them [and lead them into Christendom in order to destroy Christians] … and Christians will yet be in as much and more subjection to them as they have been in subjection to the Christians.

A people without a homeland, the Jews plot to divest all Christians of dominion.

Despite supposedly writing from a post-Expulsion England, the Mandeville-author consistently and innovatively demonizes Jews. Stephen Greenblatt describes this “ungenerous” attitude as the “most significant exception to the tolerance that is impressively articulated elsewhere” (Marvelous Possessions). Iain Higgins writes that the Book’s conspiracy theories might seem future-focused, but they are formulated “to incite ill-feeling against Jews in the present … a hostility verging on paranoia” (Writing East). Benjamin Braude describes Mandeville’s narration of the enclosed Jews and their future triumph under Antichrist as “a blood-curdling passage … a warrant for genocide" (“Mandeville’s Jews among Others").

I wonder, though, if there isn’t more to the story than that … and I wonder if we might even find in Mandeville’s tale of the enclosed Jews not only a paranoid fantasy of how different a proximate Other might be, but an example of Christian attentiveness to the discontented desires of those neighboring them. When at the end the of world the ten lost tribes of the Jews escape their distant and rocky enclosure pour crestiente destruire, to destroy Christendom, we can glimpse no friendship in this stark vision, no coinhabitance or commingling … or can we?

Yes. In this apocalyptic imagining of Christian dominion’s termination we can hear not just an anti-Jewish fantasy of an imperiled Christian world, but an actual Jewish fantasy of such an end – a vision of the future that suggests that Jewish voices from the Middle Ages resonated not just with scholarly wisdom and tearful commemoration of tragedy, but with anger at the smallness of the spaces in which they often found themselves consigned. Israel Yuval, in a remarkable work of revisionary scholarship (Two Nations in Your Womb), has mapped the ways in which Jewish residence among Christians shaped Jewish religious practice. Like Daniel Boyarin, Elliott Horowitz, Ivan Marcus, and David Biale, Yuval’s work stresses that despite the inherited assumption that Jews and Christians inhabited different worlds, both faiths were profoundly changed by living together. Both remained not frozen in time but mutable, open, alive.

Urban adjacency might lead to neighborliness, as we saw in Matthew Paris (a Christian crosses a Jewish threshold to play with friends of another faith) -- or it might not, as when that same threshold is declared by a man like John of Lexington to be the demarcation of another world, one where modernity ends and an ever-repeating past begins. Yuval provides the angry response that could come from that other side of the door once Jewish space has been violently trespassed, once the occupants of a Jewish house are allowed to voice something other than “a Christian fantasy,” as in Copin’s self-condemnation through ventriloquism. This voice might appraise the present in ways very different from its Christian framing, and might speak a passionate desire for a future utterly different from Christian “modern times.”

A prayerbook of English provenance composed no later than 1190 contains this fragment of the Alenu le-shabeah:

[Christians] bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save – man, ash, blood, bile, stinking flesh, maggot, defiled men and women, adulterers and adulteresses, dying in their iniquity and rotting in their wickedness, worn out dust, rot of maggot [and worm] – and pray to a god who cannot save.

Remember the young Jew of Oxford, the mocker of Saint Frideswide, who killed himself while speaking unrecorded blasphemies? Could these lines offer us a glimpse of what he might have said? Anger at one’s neighbor held no Christian monopoly. Sometimes this Jewish ire took the form of an aggressive fantasy of vengeance in which the King Messiah finally arrived. In a role borrowed from Christian crusading polemic, this Messiah would smite the enemies of Israel and drive them from the land. Keeping in mind that the “Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist” (Yuval 289), the story narrated by the Mandeville-author suddenly becomes a little more complicated.

The prophesied liberation of the enclosed Jews and their termination of Christian world dominion contains something of an extant Jewish vision of revenge, a vision apparently taken into Jewish eschatology from Christian materials. Yuval has persuasively argued that the liberating and vengeance-wielding King Messiah was dreamt by medieval Jews as they overheard their Christian neighbors speak in their polemic of Crusader kings and the reclamation of the Holy Land. Christians in turn overheard Jewish neighbors talk of a Messiah who would deliver them from exile, and dreamed an Antecrist. This Messiah/Antichrist is therefore at once Christian and Jewish – or better yet between Christian and Jew.

In his tale of the future liberation of Jews locked in distant exile, the Mandeville-author may be narrating a paranoid and antisemitic story. Yet he is also recounting angry Jewish words – or words that blend Christian and Jew into a hybrid discourse, an interspace where the relations between the one and the other might be intractably complex, but the anger at subjection and violence to which this vision gives voice is impossible not to hear.


This medieval Christian Jewish antichrist Messiah is a figure of anger, vengeance, blood. The explosiveness of Messianic time is everywhere evident in him ... and like all explosions triggered by those too ardent for a reconfigured present, this violence has its innocent victims, its neighbors who were simply carrying on with their lives. In its specific language (of Crusade, of worldly kingdom) this Messianic time is time-bound, just as Benjamin's figure of the automaton Turk might be in part contemporary Orientalism, in part a meditation on (as a commentor suggested) Charlie Chaplin.

But I don't think Messianic desires need end in anger, vengeance, blood. Rather, I'd point out that what we witness taking shape in the space between Christian and Jew in Mandeville is something more than hostility. It is also the unfolding of a hope so simple, so essential, so common that I would call it untimely: the hope that the present become more capacious, that the future not repeat the constrictive orthodoxies of the day. It is towards that as yet unknown future, the future in which the Messiah never arrives, that the complexities of Christian-Jewish-Muslim neighboring propels us, even now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fun piece on Robin Hood ...

by J J Cohen

... and Robin Hood Studies, and a big Robin Hood conference coming in October at the University of Rochester, in the Rochester Review.

My undergraduate advisor (and the person most instrumental to ensuring I became a medievalist) Tom Hahn figures prominently. The article mentions that he has a personal collection of over 2000 Robin Hood items. As someone who has stayed at his home, I can attest to that fact: the guest bedroom had more Robin Hood paraphernalia than you'd imagine all the sweatshops in China could create.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years on

by J J Cohen

Not sure I can say anything more than this or this.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

E-Seminar: Messianic Time and the Untimely

by J J Cohen

This post instigates the electronic portion of the seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely, to be held at the George Washington University on Thursday September 17, 3-5 PM.

The papers may be downloaded here. Any comments made on this blog will form part of the discussion on Sept. 17, and a follow-up post will be published. Eileen Joy may also Twitter the proceedings.

The seminar is sponsored by the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. Our three presenters are Julia Lupyon, Kathleen Biddick, and Gil Harris. Some information about each of them may be accessed via this post at the GW MEMSI blog.

The comments are open. Please post!

For Northern Lights

by J J Cohen

Thanks, Meli, for the most beautiful e-gift I've very received.

Chaucer is Back

by J J Cohen

Don't miss the latest post, which includes some of King Richard's tweets ("@laborers calme down or els").

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An Untimely Knock Knock Joke

by J J Cohen

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Paul who?
Paul Shakespeare!

If you didn't get that, then you haven't been reading Julia Lupton's paper, and you won't be able to participate in the GW MEMSI / In the Middle e-seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely.

Discussion begins here on Thursday September 10. Start reading!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Carnivalesque LIII

by J J Cohen

... at Ruff Notes. Don't miss this back to school edition.

Monday, September 07, 2009

New Critical Modes 3: Who Else?

by J J Cohen

First, my gratitude to everyone who contributed to the ongoing discussion about new critical modes here and here (and honestly, to anyone who has ever contributed to one of the many blog posts we do here on the subject, since it is one dear to most of us).

In the ongoing we discussion we heard many possibilities, but not many specific names of those who have created or are now fashioning such modes. A few mentioned so far: Carolyn Dinshaw; the Chaucer blogger; Rick Godden; Nicola Masciandaro; Dan Remein. I know I've done this only implicitly so far, but I'll be explicit: my co-bloggers Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Mary Kate Hurley all possess and artist's inclination to create the genre that conveys their argument rather than to cram an argument into generic exoskeletons.

There are many others who could be added. Jenna Mead made a strong argument that David Wallace is engaged in such a project in Premodern Places. Nicholas Howe. Myra Seaman and Holly Crocker, especially (but certainly not exclusively) via postmedieval. Anna Klosowska. Noreen Giffney and Michael O'Rourke. Who else?

CFP: Romance Temporalities

by J J Cohen, on behalf of Amy Burge

This panel should be right up the alley of many ITM readers. [What does 'right up the alley' even mean? Am I being anachronistic in using the idiom for a medieval research project? Should I have said 'right inside the scriptorium'? Anyway ...]

Proposed Sessions by the Medieval Romance Society

45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2010

Romance Temporalities

In recent years, medievalists have increasingly considered the medium of time as a dynamic position from which to analyze the medieval as we explore and question our own temporally determined relationships to the period we study. As evidenced by the publication of criticism such as Robert Rouse’s The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance, this heightened awareness of our temporal distance from our scholarly subjects has also encouraged us to explore the conflations, confusions, uses, and abuses of time and periodization at work in medieval literature itself. We are no longer satisfied with the idea of histories and chronologies—whether purportedly factual or openly fictional—as linear, progressive, or innocent. Medieval romance, in particular, offers today’s readers a rich array of timely challenges, from temporal discontinuities and ahistorical moments to shifting verb tenses. The three proposed sessions of the Medieval Romance Society aim to address questions such as, “How does time function in romance?” “How does our modern understanding of medieval romance infiltrate contemporary literature?” “How do we teach medieval romance today in fun, accessible, and responsible ways?”

The Medieval Romance Society would like to invite papers that explore how we understand medieval romance in our contemporary world, both as critical researchers and as teachers of romance. We value interdisciplinarity and welcome proposals from graduate students as well as established scholars. Though papers should be presented in English, we hope to include papers on romances of multiple medieval languages. One-page abstracts (or 250 word abstracts for the roundtable) should be submitted by September 15 to Amy Burge at

“Once Upon a Time:” Romance Temporalities

Critics have long acknowledged the “once upon a time” trope at work in medieval romance, but we are increasingly uneasy with the innocence and “merely” fantastic or escapist motivations assumed in its deployment. This session invites reconsiderations of what kinds of temporal systems are at work in medieval romance (and why), how romance makes use of revisionary chronologies, how it imagines its pasts and futures.

Temporal Touching Roundtable: Medieval Romance and Popular Culture

Although medieval romance and popular culture are distinct genres, scholars increasingly recognize the productivity of blurring the medieval/modern divide in order to examine the relevance of the medieval to the modern. This roundtable session aims to explore the transmission of medieval romance into modern popular culture and to investigate the benefits of diachronic research to medieval studies.

Time for Romance? Teaching Medieval Romance in a Modern World

How do we, as teachers, mediate the “otherness” of medieval romance in the classroom? On the one hand, we have a responsibility to help students learn about medieval cultures as distinct from our own; on the other hand, we want to help them view medieval literature as accessible and enjoyable as an object of study. This session invites papers by teachers of medieval romance to share their strategies and engage in critical exploration of the challenges of teaching romance, particularly to undergraduates.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Hello, Beautiful: The Inaugural Issue of Glossator Has Arrived!


Con-sider our commentary a love-driven constellation, a double star (binary or optical?) gravitationally caught within these motions, like the subtle turnings of an ungraspable celestial tress.
--Anna Klosowska and Nicola Masciandaro, "Beyond the Sphere"

Speaking of oceanic and new critical modes, and especially in relation to one of our anonymous commenter's questions to me in the thread to Jeffrey's post on "New Critical Modes, Part II" after I had argued for the widest possible venues for the greatest variety of scholarly modes [and which question I actually think is critically important and worth returning to with renewed earnestness and care], and also returning, as I often do, to the cautions of Jonathan Jarrett that, while I [or we] may want a super-abundance of scholarly modes, styles, etc., there are, in the end, financial constraints and only so many jobs [many conventionally defined] and so on, and here then is the question:
eileen, can you, do you really believe in a world of such infinity, such unlimitedness? it seems to me a world of fantasy, and not necessarily a desirable one. as one of the readers that irina so eloquently describes as needing "generosity" for reasons that i believe are good but that i will keep to myself, this desire for ever-overflowing, ever-proliferating new discourses seems overwhelming.
Oh yes, it is overwhelming, even for me [I don't sleep much--ask my friends], but I can only say again that I do believe in this world, yes, but with the caveat that those of us who desire to enlarge the fields within which we work and play, and to create new modes and styles of scholarship, new ways of doing things and of being together [affectively] in this new work we do [and for me, especially, if we care enough to help create financially sustainable spaces within which more of us can have gainful employment doing the work we simply can't stop ourselves from doing and therefore hopefully avoid the despair of being shut out of a profession that simply doesn't have room, supposedly, for "everything"], then some of us are going to have to commit ourselves to doing more than just our individual scholarship and teaching and also think of "service" to our profession as something that extends beyond our institutions to embrace the future of the field itself. We will create and have created working groups [Babel Working Group], institutes dedicated to cutting-edge cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary scholarly exchange and learning [GW-MEMSI], journals that bring the Middle Ages and modernity into productive contact [postmedieval], journals that combine literary and theoretical writing [Whiskey and Fox], and special journal issues and essay collections that highlight the kind of "new" work we want to do [Fragments Toward a History of Vanishing Humanism], and we must also work within our institutions for innovative curricular reforms that both protect what might be called traditional premodern studies while also expanding the role of what medieval studies can do within a more richly-imagined cross-temporal curriculum, at both the undergraduate and graduate level [I and my colleagues have done this within the English department at S.I.U.E. where we set in motion this semester a brand-new B.A. in English program that actually strengthens the position of medieval and early modern studies while also insisting that periodicity, as well as certain canonical "giants" such as Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, no longer serve as the primary edifices within which certain texts are taught and required].

Let's celebrate, then, too, some of this dedication and vision [and unpaid labor] that has gone into creating new spaces for work in our field that aims to be creative, nomadic, multi-voiced, unconventional, affective, pluralistic, lyric-experimental, and felicitous in its movements across periods, geographies, and genres. Let's celebrate, especially, today, the unveiling of the inaugural issue of the open-access, online journal Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary, the brain- and love-child of Nicola Masciandaro, Karl Steel, and Ryan Dobran:

Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary, vol. 1 (2009)

The editors of Glossator describe the mission of the journal this way:
Glossator publishes original commentaries, editions and translations of commentaries, and essays and articles relating to the theory and history of commentary, glossing, and marginalia (catena, commentum, gemara, glossa, hypomnema, midrash, peser, pingdian, scholia, tafsir, talkhis, tika, vritti, zend, zhangju, et al). The journal aims to encourage the practice of commentary as a creative form of intellectual work and to provide a forum for dialogue and reflection on the past, present, and future of this ancient genre of writing. By aligning itself, not with any particular discipline, but with a particular mode of production, Glossator gives expression to the fact that praxis founds theory.
The first issue is exciting and includes work by some of our favorite people--some medievalists, some not, and some poets, too [and just look at the range of subjects!]:
  • NEW WORK: A PROSIMETRUM Daniel C. Remein
Directly related to our conversations here about new critical modes, Dan Remein describes his essay this way:
This work consists of new poems and commentary in the tradition of Dante’s prosimetric self-commentary. It aims to explore the shared ground of poetry and commentary, and the potential symbiotic and generative relationships between the two modes. The work proposes the elaboration of at least three particular formal poetic structures—which it names the ‘riddle,’ the ‘missive,’ and the ‘miniature romance’—, cites moments from a broad range of medieval, modern, and contemporary literary history, and attempts to provoke a poetics of both poem and commentary that might help generate a more politically salient concept of literary community.
And here is the abstract for Anna Klosowska and Nicola's essay:
Revolutions: The turning movement through the images of this sonetto involves several eddying, (micro)cosmic motions. We begin already beyond the widest sphere, then penetrate it from this side via love’s weeping in a motion that is virtually re-initiated from the heart in a kind of syntactic time-warp. Then comes the thought-sigh’s arrival before the lady and its getting lost in the epicycles of honor and splendor and gazing. Then his subtle retelling of the gaze caused by a secondary motion of the heart that first moved it. Then the mystical understanding of the pensero’s unintelligible speech through the apophatic anamnesis of the beloved’s name. Finally, a gracious love-boast gently expanding towards those who have understanding of love. Con-sider our commentary a love-driven constellation, a double star (binary or optical?) gravitationally caught within these motions, like the subtle turnings of an ungraspable celestial tress.
Well? What are you waiting for? Start reading! And for god's sake, enjoy yourself.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Messianic Time and the Untimely: Papers Available for Download

by J J Cohen

The GW MEMSI Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely

will take place live on Thursday September 17 from 3-5 PM

English Department Seminar Room, GWU

Registration has closed and the seminar is full, but we still want you to participate. Download the three papers and their attachments here.

On Thursday Sept. 10, I will post at In the Middle the start of an e-discussion to which you are most cordially invited to contribute. This conversation will form, we hope, a vital part of the seminar. Comments posted at ITM will become part of the live conversation on Sept. 17. A summary of proceedings will be posted at ITM as well.

Eileen Joy has agreed to live twitter the seminar as it unfolds. Short of installing teleportation devices (for which I submitted the work order last week, but they are unlikely to arrive in time), it's the best way we can bring this event to as many interested participants as possible. The format is experimental; please help us to make it a success.

The paper authors/presenters are:

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New Critical Modes Part 2

by J J Cohen

Cary Howie and I recently posted excerpts from our interchanges about a special issue of postmedieval we're co-editing with the awkward, horrible, unpoetic, ghastly, barbaric and probably enduring title of New Critical Modes. The conversation we had and which I would like to continue today carries traces of these posts:
Each of these pieces concerns a tangle of related issues: jargon, clarity, communication, innovation, art, criticism, poetry, beauty, love, self-identity, difficulty, welcome, community, boundary.

From John Mandeville to Roger Caillois, I've been blogging over the past year my work-in-progress on stone as a kind of liquid or organism or matter-energy or artist or communication device. These posts have been accessed many times, by lightly commented upon. Compare them to the recent posts on lucidity and jargon, with their vigorous comment threads. To join a conversation about what academic writing can and should sound like is easier, it seems to me, than to reply to an essay in which a stone speaks. The stakes for the former are also higher and more self evident than for the latter. Right?

So I can't help asking: is there something within such a misfit critical mode that locks readers out? Are such modes inhospitable to the kind of convivial and nomadic medieval studies In the Middle is supposed to cultivate? Are they unwelcoming, ungracious? Is there a chasm between content and form? (Blog posts are, after all, their own genre).

In his comments to "[Oceanic] Critical Modes" a gifted poet/artist/medievalist named Dan Remein wrote:
I'd like to see critical work appears in language that does not register as in a critical mode, a truly new mode, one we do not yet know how to read ... I want to ask not so much about 'poetic' diction, abstract formulations, the logophilia Jeffrey recently blogged about, but also about the _poetics_ of the work in terms of what effect the language of the writing is having on language--what is the language itself doing and how--who or what does it 'speak' and what discourses does it register in, circulate, repeat, cite, etc. I want to urge you to include some things that are really really new, that break radically with old forms, take up a place in the tradition of work that resists being easily incorporated into or 'redeemed' as recognizable critical prose--prose trying to _do_ something poetically other than communicate scholarly information, prose (or verse!) whose function, rather than to communicate, must be understood to function in terms of its phenomenological capacities (outside of the 'correspondence theory of of truth,' for a philosophical reference point) is say, to name, to call, to break, to push, to open, to crack, to feel, to beckon, to cruise, to turn on or off, to....
Dan also connected some new critical modes to literary modernism -- an insight I'd endorse from personal experience. I realized long ago that a significant portion of the citational unconscious of my writing derives from Eliot, Stevens, Pound, H. D., and Stein -- along with some modernist-mediated Shakespeare and Glas-era Derrida (all of whom are intimately related, I think). Something about these artists' love of tradition in fragments, their ardor for the new, and their logophilia captured my own imagination long ago.

[illustration: rocky shore with invisible storm, Ogunquit, August 2009. By author]

But here is my hesitation. On the one hand, a part of me is drawn to Dan's injunction "not to change our 'methodologies' regarding 'scholarship' or the 'style' of our writing, but to build/construct our pieces of criticism from the perspective of what the language is capable of speaking/doing." Yes! is my first reaction. But another part of me wonders about (1) my actual ability to pull off such experimentation (Dan can accomplish such a task; I'd only be imitating bpNichol or Gertrude Stein, and not very well: so, the failure of my craft is what lurks here); and (2) the receptivity of any audience to such a mode.

Dan further argues that a new critical mode ought to "look different and not apologize for itself," ought to demand much of the reader without providing maps (introductions, conclusions, brackets that keep the experiment bounded and knowable). Again, a part of me is attracted to such vision of the art of medieval studies. But another voice inside me, concocted of ambivalence as I am, blocks me from my desired assent. This isn't the same voice that has prevented me from working with medieval mystics, or medieval labor rights activists -- the part of me that has ensured that the Middle Ages I write about is a weirdly and anachronistically secular one, a world largely without God or god-substitutes. But it is related, since I worry that such an art can seem the vatic guardian of a truth intentionally withheld.

Dan, of course, is urging nothing of the sort: hence his invocation of the "I" as multiple, his emphasis on collaborators. I believe he'd object that the kind of work he is envisioning shuts out only the lazy reader, the one who will not work alongside and through and into the text, the one who will not open to the encounter or collaboration. There are many readers of this sort.

So, what if such a new kind writing, such a new critical mode, existed -- but what if its ocean was so deep that its writer wholly lost sight of sand and shore, of readers and friends? Despite its joy in the new, modernism is underwritten, it seems to me, with despair. So what would happen if an oceanic mode were attempted (sea and stone became equally liquid), but only silence greeted the transubstantiation? Tidal indifference and a disappeared shore: who can write to that solitude?

Worse, what if a writer were to convince himself that he had journeyed deep into newly navigated waters, only to find the ocean that he thought surrounded him was never really all that deep?