Sunday, March 04, 2012

Of Cargo Cults and Geoffrey of Monmouth

by J J Cohen
(edited on 3/5 to reflect fact that the number of free e-prints was limited)

I'm reproducing below an email I received early last week from Michael W. Scott, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics who is conducting some fascinating research in which I know ITM readers will be interested.

Follow the link within his email to access an essay on Geoffrey of Monmouth, underground realms of plenty, American interventionism, Melanesia, and ethnic struggle in the wake of the Norman conquest. While it might seem that multicultural medieval Britain and the contemporary Solomon Islands have little to say to each other, Scott's article is in fact a fascinating postcolonial anthropological reading of matter, myth, and story making. He provides an intriguing model of how to conduct a present-minded analysis of medieval materials ... and suggests that medievalists and contemporary anthropologists do not necessarily have to believe that methodologies, geographies, history and language have together constructed a wall of absolute difference that cannot be traversed.

Sometimes the best conversations happen once a chink has been removed from such a barrier and an unexpected exchange unfolds. This is one such case.

Read the essay and let me know what you think.

Dear Prof. Cohen,
Apologies for writing to you out of the blue.  I am a social anthropologist based at the London School of Economics and have been conducting ethnographic field research among the Arosi of the island of Makira (Solomon Islands) since 1992.  I write to you on the recommendation of Andrew Lynch, Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia.  Andrew kindly suggested that you, as one of number of theoretically broad-minded medievalists, might be interested in a recent publication of mine:

Scott, Michael W. (2012) The Matter of Makira: Colonialism, Competition, and the Production of Gendered Peoples in Contemporary Solomon Islands and Medieval Britain. History and Anthropology 23(1): 115-148. Users from subscriber institutions should be able to access the article freely at the journal's webpage

I presented an earlier version of this paper at Andrew’s Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group Seminar in July 2010, and it has now appeared in the journal History and Anthropology.  The title and abstract of the paper are as follows:
The Matter of Makira: Colonialism, Competition, and the Production of Gendered Peoples in Contemporary Solomon Islands and Medieval Britain
Since civil tension disrupted Solomon Islands between 1998 and 2003, the Arosi of Makira have elaborated discourses according to which their island contains a secret and preternaturally powerful subterranean army base. These discourses have clear antecedents in Maasina Rule, a post-World War II socio-political movement sometimes analyzed as a “cargo cult”. Offering an alternative interpretation, I compare Arosi discourses about the Makiran underground to the Matter of Britain as represented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (completed c. 1138). I argue that both sets of discourses arise from the dynamics of mutually precipitating communities mythologizing themselves and each other in terms of the analogous oppositions colonizer is to colonized as allochthon is to autochthon as male is to female. This comparison, I conclude, recommends the medieval European phenomenon of a “matter” as a productive model for understanding contemporary ethnogenetic myth-making in and beyond Melanesia.
Although anthropologists of Melanesia and scholars of so-called ‘cargo cult’ phenomena are perhaps the primary intended audience, it is my hope that medievalists and experts on Arthuriana may also find the comparative analysis intriguing.  Given your wide-ranging interests, therefore, I send this along in the spirit of interdisciplinary dialogue.

Yours collegially,
Dr Michael W. Scott, Dept. of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, United Kingdom. Email:


Jeb said...

looks seriously interesting. Could not get past the paywall but did manage to find "The Makiran Underground Army: Kastom Mysticism and Ontology Politics in South-east Solomon Islands" as it does not have the same restrictions.

His book the Severed Snake from the subjects it concerns itself with looks like a must read and I look forward to reading it alongside a trawl through some early Anglo Saxon ecclesiastical charters from 850 a.d. onwards.

A mass of literary and oral material from Wales Scotland and the North of England also sprang instantly to mind within a few minutes of reading the paper.

Hoping some full transcriptions of interviews with the islanders are available somewhere in English. Some of what is touched on looks very familiar and the description of how the narrative moves within the culture of the islands was a pleasure to read.

Will be highly interesting to see if the arrival of Christianity in the landscape yields any useful comparative data in relation to changing patterns in the British early med. landscape and culture.

Jeb said...

p.s a comparison between Arosi discourses and the wildman's use in medieval local Welsh land disputes. That would be interesting!

Kathleen said...

Hey Jeb - I have access to this journal. Contact me and I may be able to help. Let me know if the name/URL doesn't link properly.

Michael Scott said...

To Jeb and anyone else: feel free to email me directly with queries. See the original posting for my email address.

Jeb said...

Thanks Kathleen.

Dr Scott will get in touch. I have an interest in some early Irish legal material that may (or may not) prove interesting in regard to you're research. Interesting to see how similar or different things are.

Paolo Galloni said...

It is seriously interesting. It encouraged me to look beyond and reflect upon other related topics, as early and high medieval oral treatment of infromations from written latin texts; or the complicated relations between warrior ethic and christian values (in my view deeply entangled with Geoffrey's passages discussed by Michael Scott).
@Jeb: for sure "the arrival of Christianity in the landscape yields any useful comparative data in relation to changing patterns in the British early medieval landscape and culture". You may find something interesting in the works of archaeologist John Moreland. It would be also intriguing to study cross contamination between neolithic sites and the new mapping of landscape provided by church building and agiographical lore
Best to all

Jeb said...

Thanks Paolo. I have a few of John Moreland's papers hiding in an old box, which I had not read for a very long time. Had forgotten about them until you're suggestion.

Returning very briefly to the subject after a long absence. Will be interesting to see how things have evolved.

Jeb said...

Michael. Add this in here with regard to e-mail.

I did not think to view the kakamora alongside wild men but the early British wild men are also not of the type you describe the oldest version also lacks the sexual motif, which has always raised questions with regard to the monastic transmission of this migratory legend.

So much uncharted territory in regard to this subject. The Asian sources you directed me towards were most helpful. Fingers crossed someone somewhere is busy looking at North American picture as that also raises some interesting questions with relation to European and non-European interaction and relationships. As far as I am aware some recent research on the middle eastern aspects are forthcoming.

Joined up comparative and interdisciplinary research is essential in areas such as this as I think you're paper demonstrates.

Jeb said...

p.s its the political aspects I find most of interest. W.Man is an overtly political creature.

Geoffrey allows a distinction to be drawn and two merlin's emerge allowing the Norman's, Welsh and Scots to deploy prophecy in his name. Geoffrey for some reason returns to a more traditional perspective in Vita Merlini it's far more in keeping texts like Vita Merlini Silvestris from the St Kentigern legends which Gerald of Wales also draws from to further his own political battles.

"I also saw the innumerable battalions of an army in the air, holding in their hands fiery spears like the flash of lightning and sparkling weapons which they brandished against me."


The battle Merlin is retrospectively placed in is Arderydd, which took place in 573 a.d. (thought to be authentic on the grounds that the original annal entry is so terse). But it's described by Molly Miller and D.M. Dumville as the historical horizon of British history. Visionary figure is placed on the horizon and at the start of it's dreaming.

One of the potential sites of the battle is now home to a colony of Barnacle geese. Which is a rather apt creature to place in such a horizon. British history starting with a plaintive honk and ever transforming.

But to see the same movement from vision into politics is most useful