Day 10 – Voyage of St Brendan

What might be the prophet Amos drawing a whale, though I don't know why he would do that.
What might be the prophet Amos drawing a whale, though I don’t know why he would do that.
  1. We heard about Dorothy Kim’s recent talk at NYU about “Pleasure in the Digital Archive.” By way of introducing theArchive of Early Middle English, and some models for keeping a digital product open-ended and growing (as with, say, T-Pen), Kim argued that the digital presentations of manuscripts, for example, have chiefly focused on the visual, and that the best response to this would be to determine some other senses to appeal to, not in terms of “universal access,” but rather, more excitingly, in terms of responses to the particular sensory capabilities of various populations. For one model of a very exciting visual presentation, see here. Kim’s talk can be watched/listened to here.
  2. I recommended that folks examine essays from a recent issue of //Different Visions//, which has a nice set of materialist/theoretical readings of medieval objects from Kzoo 2012.
  3. I encouraged folks to send an abstract to a great ecology medieval/early modern conference coming up next October in Maryland.
  4. I pointed out the Met’s “Animals in Medieval Art” page, which is quite rich.
  5. I recommended people enjoy British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, which is a great 13th-century bestiary, lavishly illustrated and fun.
  6. I recommended that people listen to recent “Rethinking the PhD Job Search” event, hosted by George Washington University Early Modernist Holly Dugan.
  7. And then I walked students through my own research/writing process for a paper I’ll be giving this Saturday. What started as a paper about fish and oysters, turned into just a paper about “fish” (why does Gerald’s Topographia speak of the “carnibus” of a fish? isn’t it interested thatcaro means both “flesh” and “meat” in Latin? how does he conceive of his own flesh in relation to the fish’s meat?) and the title of the work. Though the famous Penguin translation calls it the History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald himself calls it just the Topographia Hibernica (orHibernie). What is up with that word? Searches on, the MGH, and the amazing Corpus Corporum (highly useful for CUNY medievalists, since we don’t have access to the for-pay PL database, but rather only unsearchable PDFs) confirmed that the wordTopographia appears in Latin VERY rarely prior to Gerald (searches were for topogra*, since it might be spelled topografia): in Wipo’s Life of Conrad II, in Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis, and, notably, in Servius’s Aeneid commentary. From there, I developed a way of thinking of ecological writing (topos + graphein) that, in a Derridean mode, helps understand Gerald’s disanthropocentric time scale and his account of ecological movement and bridges the gap between the so-called linguistic and material turns. I’ll post a link to the paper here next week, along with links to some of the great sources I turned up.

To begin thinking about Benedeit’s Anglo-Norman version of the Brendan legend, we listened to some of it read aloud, we watched a bit of Valhalla Rising, and I had every intention of linking to a bunch of medieval Irish journey literature, but didn’t have a chance to. For your reading pleasure/edification: herehere, and here. For an edition of the text, see here.

Our presentation made an excellent argument for the relationships the story sets up between ecological unity or even sustainability and paradise. God provides, without our having to work, which brings us back to the time before the fall. And the voyaging monks learn not to treat the world as only a set of resources awaiting extraction. In this world, the sheep, left alone, grow large. We did wonder about the one sheep the monks kill, as well as the sea monster they eat. The first, however, is eaten on Easter, the great feast day of the Christian calendar (though my Francis anecdote was about Christmas, the other great feast day), and is therefore, also, a sacrificial lamb, brought within the Christian community in the way the lamb/Christ does best. And the sea monster may recall Jewish legends about the eschatological meal of Leviathan, who will be eaten by Jews when Messiah comes.

This led into several rich conversations, for example, about the nature of time in the voyage: is it perhaps like a Jewish calendar, with dates threaded through the “same” dates in the previous year? is the voyage circular to provide a kind of “God’s eye” view of time, at once static and moving?

It’s clear that we’re not the first ones to think ecologically about this voyage. Indeed, as Jane Bennett helps us observe, the wind and the rocks and the water are all actors in this story, too. Human agency is but one agency in a voyage that’s less deliberative than it is a drifting from place to place, with occasional proddings in particular directions. Agency is often impersonal in this, like gravity perhaps, or like entelechy in Bennett’s account of Drietsch in Coole and Frost’s New Materialisms.

We were particularly interested in Judas (maltreated here in this recent bit of modern doctrine, and talked about in some early scholarship and also at length in this key study). Benedeit’s translation of the Latin amplifies its attention to Judas’s punishment greatly. In Benedeit, Judas suffers in six particular ways: he’s spun on a wheel, then crushed with rocks and pierced with lead, and then boiled in pitch, and finally deposited in a dark and cold place; and then he’s flayed and rolled in salt, and finally finally fed molten copper. I proposed these were elemental punishments: air (spinning); earth(rocks and lead); fire (boiling pitch); water (dark and cold and deep). Then he’s tortured on the outside (indeed, flaying makes someone entirelyoutside) and then on the inside. If Brendan models the path of ecological harmony, then Judas represents precisely the opposite.

We also spent a lot of time on Paul the Hermit’s hair clothing. Here’s Mackley’s translation:

They gaze with astonishment at him and his dress:
He has no clothing other than hair,
With which he is covered as if with a veil;
He had an angelic countenance,
And his whole body was celestial;
Snow is not so white or pure
As the hair of this brother.

We’re in some kind of aporia here that speaks to the whole work’s engagement with questions of time, humanity, and animality, and recalls to us Derrida’s discussion of nudity in “The Animal that Therefore I am.” He has no clothing but hair: clothing is a sign of our shame, designed to cover our own shame from others. His hair is a veil, which recalls the apostle Paul’s many befuddling pronouncements about veils (here and here, for example, or even here): veils hide our glory, not our shame, from the sight of others. His face is angelic — shining — and his body, hidden by clothing, or by a veil, is already celestial. Why is he covered? And what does this hairiness say about his relationship to animality? Does it suggest that Paul’s transcended or ignored any human/animal difference, or taken it someplace where it’s completely incomprehensible?