Harrison Bergeron is Black.

Harrison Bergeron is Black. I don’t mean that the story says he is, explicitly. But it doesn’t say he’s white either. All we know about HB is that he’s a 7-foot-tall ideal man, or, rather, teenager, possibly, as he’s 14 years old when he’s taken from his parents. So he could be Black.

If we take him as Black, everything about the story and its reception changes, for the better. “Harrison Bergeron” is, unfortunately, a story much loved by libertarians and other embarrassing individualists. Scalia cited it in his opinions; Jordan Peterson — remember him? — reads the story, I’m told, in a video, with commentary. The libertarians, presumably, imagine themselves as HB himself, held back by mediocrities kept afloat by a society drowning in its misguided dedication to equality. If only the idiots kept their place, these boy-men imagine, then I’d be able to fly free.

Now, they’re misreading the story, of course. HB is, possibly, a teenager. He is exactly the kind of person who would imagine himself better than everyone else, who would declare himself emperor, who would imagine that simply declaring himself emperor would be enough to cow everyone else, if only they could recognize his superiority. He’s a joke, actually. (for more on this, listen to Gerry Canavan, Aaron Bady, and Sam Adler-Bell on their “Harrison Bergeron” episode of Grad School Vonnegut: I haven’t finished listening to the episode yet, but halfway through the episode I had this idea, and had to write it down. If you made the same argument, Canavan, Bady, and Adler-Bell, sorry! I’ll update as necessary)

But that interpretation, HB as goofy impossible teenager, isn’t going to do enough to break the chains of identification and projection binding HB to most (white) libertarians. Making him Black might do the trick, while also accounting for certain peculiarities in the story.

Vonnegut published the story in 1961. It’s easy enough to take it, therefore, as a critique of 50s “man in the crowd” conformity, the suit and tie and hat predictability of postwar (white) prosperity. But 1961 is, of course, also a year well amid the Civil Rights struggle, which was — you might recall — a struggle for equal rights.

So: “equality” is going to have certain resonance to a reader in 1961 that, alone, sufficiently justifies reading HB as Black.

We can take this further, easily, by noting that the story’s about a teenager taken from his parents by a police state; that he’s shot down amid his beauty and power by an agent of the state; that his parents, and not just his parents, are unable to grieve their loss, that the loss, in fact, is socially unrecognizable.

After all, Diana Moon Glompers, the Handicapper General, cannot possibly be wearing any impediments. People are generally burdened to be made bad at their jobs. But not Glompers. She shoots straight, killing both HB and his beautiful dance partner.

So, this is not an equal society. It’s hierarchical. The agents of state violence are not burdened. And should someone from the underclass step out of line, which is to say, should they reveal themselves as someone worthy of our admiration, they’ll be gunned down.

Think of what white supremacy has stolen from us. By “us” I mean not just Black people — I’m not Black, myself — but all people. Regular people kept from realizing their normality, of course, but geniuses too. Eric Dolphy, for example. Think of the stupidity of white supremacy, dedicated to wasting billions of dollars on the police to ensure, primarily, that Black people cannot achieve even parity with white mediocrities. Think, what the hell, of mediocrities like Pat Boone or Huey Lewis. Of what it means that Obama had Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé sing at his inaugurations, and Trump had the, I swear to god, Piano Guys play at his. It’s not just that Trump has bad taste! It’s that whiteness can get away with peddling shit like this as something we should all eat.

Read it this way, and suddenly “Harrison Bergeron” isn’t such a sucky story.

Emma Got Butts


The new Emma film, by Autumn de Wilde, is notable for its two butts. As the first is Mr. Knightley’s, and the second Emma’s, we can take the narrative — to paraphrase a social media comment from Louise D’Arcens (for whose review, see here) — as one designed to bring the butts together.

First, Mr. Knightley’s. He has arrived at the Woodhouse estate, damp and perhaps a little muddy from his trip, so, before joining Woodhouse père et fille by the fire, he has a manservant strip him naked, and then redress him tight in clean clothes. During the operation, facing the camera, we gaze upon his naked body, including his alabaster, hairless butt.

Emma’s butt is offered obliquely. She’s cold, one presumes, because she’s seen hiking the rear drapery of her dress up to her hips before the fire, so that her cheeks might bask merrily in its warmth.

It would be easy to take these two butts as just a bit of earthy humor in a story not exactly famous for its earthiness. It would be clever to take the butts, as I did on twitter the same evening I saw the film, as an allusion to Yoko Ono’s 1966-67 Film No. 4 (h/t Maya Weimer for turning me on to this). Her film’s title comes from the four segments formed by a butt as it walks: left cheek, right cheek, upper left thigh, upper right thigh, with a horizontal and vertical line dividing each. Unless you’re the Old Woman of Candide, who tragically lost one buttock to Ottoman Janissaries, same for you, same for me. Butts are an abstract, structural configuration, and, in this Emma, so very much a film by a photographer, abstract structural configurations are the order of the day.

yoko ono

still from Yoko Ono, Film No. 4

It would be correct, though, to take the butts amid the various neo-classical and perhaps actual classical statuary the film offers us, and also as part of the great cultural tendency to disdain hairiness as declassé.

First, the statuary: the characters, especially the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley, swoon or brood or flop through long hallways decorated with white marble figures, mostly busts. These aren’t butts, of course — indeed, the bust might be thought of precisely as the least em-butted of representations, removing the head as it does from the nearly the whole digestive apparatus — while the one full-bodied marble statue the film offers us does not, if my memory serves me, offer the camera its butt (it resembles, incidentally, Randolph Rogers’ The Lost Pleiad).


The smooth white marble does, however, match the smooth whiteness of Mr. Knightley’s and Emma’s skin. His back and butt and even his legs are hairless, his skin an undulating winter tundra. Emma’s legs and cheeks’ silhouette are, no surprise, also hairless. They are their statues come to life, but not too lively a life. For a long hairless marble-like leg is poised, skin and body comme il faut, nude perhaps, but not caught out in it.

I’d see Bean Pole just a few days before Emma — hence my need to assuage my bruised brain with Emma — and now that’s a film crawling with hairy skin, men and women alike: stubble, armpits, pubic hair, it’s all there. Leningrad’s a mess, and so is its skin.

Not so in this Austen film, and no surprise. Because hairy skin is unruly. Hairy skin is a reminder of the constant labor needed to keep the barbarians out of sight. Bare skin is an “mown lawn,” to recall Lydia Davis’s piece of the same name:

“Lawn [writes Davis] also contained the letters of law. In fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman. Certainly a lawman could and did mow a lawn. Law and order could be seen as starting from lawn order, valued by so many Americans. More lawn could be made using a lawn mower. A lawn mower did make more lawn. More lawn was a contraction of more lawmen. Did more lawn in America make more lawmen in America?”

American lawmen, as I hope we all know by now, have their origins in the maintenance of slavery. Their training and expansion has to do, as you know if you’ve read Stuart Schrader’s Badges without Borders, the maintenance of American empire.

And behind the smooth hairlessness of an Austen film is its hairy side, the sources of its wealth. Indeed, when we see the paintings of Mr. Knightley’s ancestors in his estate, they’re of his 17th-century ancestors, of the period just at the beginning — or, we might say, just slightly before — of England’s massive investment in transatlanic slavery.

Austen films generally have a difficult time talking about this source of wealth, with the exception of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park. Shockingly, you can buy Tom Bertram’s sketchbook from the film, the one depicting the horrors of slavery in Antigua: $545, and its yours. De Wilde’s film, as D’Arcens’ review observes, isn’t particularly good at talking about poverty. We might note, too, that the film leaves its notorious — and I hope needless to say — racist “Gypsy” assault of poor Harriet Smith off-screen, one suspects from a slightly guilty liberal conscience, or perhaps because including the assault would have meant leaving the lawn unmown.

For when we’re in a medieval state of mind, we unwashed and unshaven proles like to imagine that the rich are just like us, doomed to mortality and putrefaction. We like to imagine that under our clothes, particularly in a society so sartorially hierarchized as, well, any classed society, we’re all the same, an envelop of skin over layers of fat and muscle over an armature of bones. Yet in Emma, we get what’s under the clothes, and what’s under the clothes is more perfection, social grace without limit and without need of any disguise.

For in the fantasy Emma offers us, Mr. Knightley doesn’t really need to be washed and changed at all. The fantasy Emma offers us is the characters’ own fantasy of themselves. It’s fetishes all the way through. For what the scene of Knightley’s butt insists on is a hairless, mown perfection at which the hairy us, having paid our price of admission, can do nothing but gawp.

Teaching Notes on M. Kempe, 2020

Taught The Book of Margery Kempe again, this time for my MA version of my Irrational Animals course. Perhaps the chief surprise in my fourth? fifth? time teaching it was the two papers I received on marital rape in The Book. The key passage for each paper was “And in al this tyme sche had no lust to comown wyth hir husbond, but it was very peynful and horrybyl unto hir” (And in all this time, she has no desire to have sex with her husband, but it was very painful and horrible to her; Book 1, Chapter 4). On the one hand, this chapter aims to separate Margery from her life as a sexual being: if one of the Book‘s goals is to render a married woman sanctifiable by purifying her from the taint of sex, then the Book has to show Margery as first tempted by sex (as she is in this chapter), and then repulsed by it. But my students — perhaps laudably free from the “baggage” of the habit of historical contextualization — noticed immediately that John Kempe must have been raping her. With that in mind, the students argued, for example, that her visionary experiences, however irrational they might appear to many of us, could be understood as a perfectly rational mechanism for freeing herself from her husband. Outrageous unrecognizable crimes need an equivalent countermeasure. As I said to the student:

That said, one other thing I like about your paper is that it recognizes Margery’s ‘fits’ as also having a rational goal: in your reading, she’s not simply an outrageous noisy woman, but a woman seeking her own liberation by enthralling herself to forces more powerful than her husband and his masculine social order.

The irony, as the students variously observed, is that her “rapture” (from raptus, the same etymological source as rape) by the divine is a further disruption of her consent. Saved from earthly rape, she finds herself — like Chaucer’s Criseyde, I’d say — in something frighteningly similar.

As I also observed to them:

On the one hand, I’m very much in favor of historical contextualization for Margery — otherwise, we will mistake a great many things as strange that would have seemed to people of her own era as not that unusual for someone who’s practicing the kind of mystical spirituality Margery aims at. After all, the one complete surviving manuscript of the work was read, apparently without disapproval, by a quite severe order of monks. But that historical contextualization can also have the effect of erasing Margery’s individual physical presence and the experience of her own life. And that, I’m increasingly convinced, would also be a mistake. I’m not sure how to balance these two elements against each other, because the issue this question raises is, essentially, where do we find the individual amid historical and cultural forces? And *that* question is so very very difficult to answer!

And if we lose too much of Margery, well, we end up with something like Wynken de Worde’s 7-page Here begynneth a shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Jhesu cryste, or taken out of the boke of Margerie kempe of lynn, whose first page I offer here from EEBO:


Although even the bowdlerized Margery isn’t enough to satisfy the haters. In the second volume of his expanded edition of Joseph Ames’ Typographical antiquities, the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin (d. 1847) observes:

The following short extract, in modernised orthography, may serve to shew to what an inflamed pitch of enthusiastic rapture and gross absurdity some of the devotional treatises of this period were wrought. (363)

With slightly updated vocabulary, and streamlined syntax, Dibdin’s 1810 judgment on Margery can still be encountered, and not only in our classrooms.

Also: in the course of my comments on their papers (which were also, depending on the student, were on Foucault’s Madness and Civilization or Hoccleve’s “Complaint”; none, disappointingly, were on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin), I thought with the students about the degree to which Margery actually goes against her society.  She does, of course, in that she’s a woman taking on a role as a spiritual leader. And she does, in that so many of the people she encounters find her deeply unpleasant.

But unpleasantness does not mean that she’s “wrong.” The interesting thing about Kempe is that she becomes unpleasant precisely by living out the fundamental religious beliefs of her culture more authentically than anyone else; she takes them seriously, and the others don’t (one student last year drew on the example of “drive through” Ash Wednesdays). So, it’s not so much that she’s a ‘maverick’ and a ‘free thinker’ and all these other categories of social obnoxiousness that tend to be applied to men as praise. Although she’s accused often of being a “Lollard” heretic and even a Jew, she handily refutes all of these charges of wrong belief, demonstrating repeatedly that she believes exactly what all the Christians around her do. It’s thus less a matter of her ‘going against’ then than of ‘going further’.

The problem with Margery is not what she believes, then, but how she practices it. That is, as I observed to one student, what we’re discovering in The Book is that religious difference can be a matter of differences in belief, but differences can be much more disturbing when they concern clashes over forms of worship, so that even a ‘doctrinaire on paper’ Christian like Margery can look like a heretic because she’s worshiping wrong.

Teaching notes on Foucault and Hoccleve

Teaching an MA course on Irrationality, and last night, we did some Foucault and used an inadequate translation of Hoccleve’s Complaint (which I’m just going to have to translate myself). I used the Most Dangerous Writing App, set to 10 minutes, to put together my talking points. Here’s what I wrote, very lightly edited.

Foucault’s Madness and Civilization ends with the apparent liberation of the mad from prisons. No longer would those designated insane be laden down with chains, no longer beaten, no longer suffer cures that were barely distinguishable from physical punishment. They were freed to walk around, to make conversation, free to do everything but what they might have wanted to do before being brought to the asylum.

For in these places of refuge — the etymological root of this word “asylum” — they would learn to govern themselves. The “essence of the liberty” of the mad was to be “imprisoned in an infinitely self-referring observation”; to be “chained to the humiliation of being its own object” (265). It little mattered what the mad thought; what mattered was how they behaved. What the managers discovered was that liberating the mad to master themselves was a far more efficient way to make the mad conform to the social ideals the managers desired.

Foucault’s observations here belong to his larger intellectual project of disabusing us of narratives of liberation. In his History of Sexuality Vol 1, he argues that postwar Europe did not, in fact, experience a period of “sexual liberation.” It was not that sex had been freed from its long period of confinement; it was not that the Victorians prudishly kept sex and sexuality locked up, and that the constant talking about sex from, say, the 1960s on, made sex liberated. Instead, all this obsessive talking about sex elevated sex and sexuality into the chief truths of the social subject. We were confined to our desires. Notice the way, Foucault observed, that psychoanalysis makes us realize that our sexual desires are in fact the truth of what we are. It’s not that sex was liberated, then, but rather that we became its prisoners.

Analogously with the mad in the new liberated asylums. On the one hand, we can be happy that the mad are (supposedly) no longer being beaten; on the other hand, there’s no need to beat them, because they have been liberated into being their own jailers.

The connection to Hoccleve, I think, is straightforward enough. Hoccleve’s problem is that he suspects that everyone looks at him and still sees him as a madman. He wants to convince everyone that he’s now sane, and that he’s not going to slip back into madness.

How can he do that? He needs to make himself meaningful for other people. The problem with your translation is that it’s missing almost half the poem. What you’re missing is Hoccleve’s transformation of himself into a socially useful subject.

What he offers in the concluding stanzas are a series of basically proverbial expressions, all points that are socially and religiously unexceptional: everything is always changing; God gives us things, and takes things away; look upon me, and learn a lesson about God’s power and the mutability of this world. That is, he loses his madness to the degree that he makes himself legible according to the dominant social values of his fifteenth-century English society.

Here we see what it means to be “well” and “reasonable”; it means to become socially useful, and to speak in a language everyone understands.

Mary’s Imperial Mercy, or, What an Empress Needs

Last post for my Intro to Medieval Studies class, and several days late at that. For a record of part of the seminar’s conversation, see Miranda Hadjuk’s post here.

According to the Gracial of Adgar, there once lived a certain secular man, a farmer, who devoted himself to worldly pursuits. As this French work, dating to around 1165, compiles miracles of the Virgin Mary, we can guess at what might happen next. The Farmer’s a wicked man: he routinely plows onto his neighbors’ lands, sends his reapers into their wheat, and pastures his livestock in their fields. But whenever he’s on his way to do his wickedness, he habitually says a little prayer to the Virgin Mary. When he dies, demons come rushing for his soul, confident that so dedicated a sinner belongs to them. The angels concur, until one angel recalls the farmer’s devotion to the Virgin. And with that, the unclean spirits flee. (I cite from a Latin translation; Adgar himself claims to be translating from a Latin original, by a certain Master Alberic; for another Latin account, nearly identical, see Caesarius of Heisterbach)

And in another exempla collection, the friar Nicholas of Wexford tells of a certain wretched man [miser] who “sororem suam tenuit multis temporibus fornicarie” [a hard clause to translate, because it’s so very repulsive: literally, who had fornicated with his sister many times]. After a long time in this vileness [vilitate], he was struck by a heavy illness, and he lay for a day, or more, with his entire upper body cold, and lower too, with only a spark of heat still trembling in his heart. And then he’s led to hell, with demons wanting to throw him him; the Virgin shows up, liberates him, and restores him to life. Nicholas, the man’s confessor, asked how such a thing could be possible, given the horrendous sin? For no other reason, he says, but that my sister was a sometimes brewer; whenever she’d brew, we’d habitually reserve a “bolla,” that is, two gallons, out of love of the Virgin, and that alone was enough to save me from hell.

Marian stories of this sort are first written in Jerusalem, Syria, and Egypt, in Greek, in the fourth century; Gregory of Tours compiles the first set of stories in Latin in the sixth century; and they began to be compiled in great numbers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like the ones above. Those compiled by Bartholomew of Trent (d. 1251) would make their way back to Egypt, where they would be, in part, translated and adapted into Arabic. And then, around 1400, they would be translated into Ge’ez, a a Semitic language that remains the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christianity; there hundreds of additional stories would be added to the collection.

Christianity became the official religion of the royal court of Ethiopia in the fourth century, perhaps in 333, under King Ezana; bishops were provided from Alexandria in Egypt. By the sixth century, the scriptures would be translated from Greek into Ge’ez, . I’ve read — in my inexpert and probably haphazard way — that we have only minimal historical records of Ethiopian Christianity between the first period of Muslim contact until the twelfth century, when Christian Zagwe rulers arose (and created the astonishing Lalibela), and then, in 1270, the Solomonids, so-called because of their claim to be descended from Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is in this period that we witness the proliferation of Ethiopian stories and holidays devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Many of these Marian stories date to the seventeenth century, that is, at a time when the Solomonic rulers were in desperate straights. One — the topic of Thursday’s class — concerns a certain nobleman of Qəmər, nominally Christian. He was an anthropophage [bälaˁe säbˀ, which literally means “man eater”]; he killed and ate 78 people, and, when his remaining — surviving, really — servants fled, he killed and ate his wife and children. With nothing but a leather water bag, his golden bow, and his appetite, he wanders. He finds a plowman too strong to kill, so he asks him to sell him his ox. The plowman refuses; the anthropophage offers him his bow; the plowman, perhaps nearly a vegetarian, refuses (“I prefer bread to anything else; I reject your offer”); the anthropophage raises the offer, with two arrows, and is similarly rejected. Finally and fully rebuffed, he asks for cave to shelter in, and on the way there, he finds a beggar covered with hideous lesions; the anthropophage is too disgusted to eat him. Please, calls the beggar, give me some water! In the name of the heavens and earth, in the name of the righteous and martyrs, in the name of — and here the anthropophage finally relents — the Virgin Mary. And the beggar gets a swallow of water, and then — in at least one version of the story (and here) — the anthropophage manhandles him so he stays thirsty; and then, in his cave, the anthropophage starves to death. And that one drink of water, offered in the Virgin’s name, is enough to save the anthropophage from hell.

Wendy Belcher, to whose discussion, and translation, I am indebted, reports on the early reception of this tale in 20th-century European medieval scholarship. Most found it exaggerated, absurd, or worse (one thought its cannibal material a reflection of its African context!). Belcher offers several readings of the tale: as about Mary’s intercessory powers; as a fable not about morality — as European Mary tales often were — but about mere survival; as a coded conflict between nobles and peasants, or between hunters and farmers, or between the wealthy and the poor (recall Swift’s “Modest Proposal”); and finally the intertextual: Belcher finds that the tale’s much closer to Islamic stories of terrible killers saved by God than it is to European Marian tales, which tend not to concern murderers (though see, for example, this one).

All that is convincing, of course: Belcher is an expert on early modern Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be any further from such a thing. But I’m going to suggest, briefly, that the Ethiopian adapters of this Marian material understood its core motive, which isn’t necessarily especially “African,” nor about anything more outrageous than Mary’s own sovereign mercy. Here’s what I (think I) know: from its thirteenth-century inception in Solomonic Ethiopia, Marian devotion is an Imperial cult: one fifteenth-century ruler was even named Bä’edä Maryam (He who is in the Hand of Mary); at any given moment when these works were being adapted and promulgated, the Solomonic rulers were in some manner of difficulty: in establishing their rule, in expanding it, in resisting Muslim and Pagan incursions (indeed, they sent emissaries to Venice, Genoa, Rome, and Aragon, variously looking for their own Prester John, even as the Europeans sought their own in Africa). Strong but embattled rulers need to exercise, chiefly, their authority, and they need strong supporters.

Enter the cannibal. Why doesn’t he repent? Why is murder no impediment for entrance into heaven? Why, but that the murderous nobleman — abounding in servants, baring a golden bow — is precisely the kind of supporter any Emperor requires. Pacifying a region, after all, typically doesn’t mean bringing it peace; it means bringing the murderers into your camp. As the pirate said to Alexander the Great, it’s only because you kill on a grand scale that you’re called an Emperor (Confessio Amantis, III.2380-97). The close Latin analogs to the tale don’t quite get this: a farmer who steals his neighbors’ property, and the man who commits fornication with his sister are each people who don’t respect boundaries. The same is the true for the anthropophage. All of them show insufficient deference to the border between self and other. But the sovereign mercy the first two men receive has little to do with how Mary’s majesty might play out in the political world. She’s not just thaumaturgical; she’s not just any old Saint; she is the Empress of Heaven. And as an Empress, what she wants is submission. And submission, alone, is sufficient to garner Imperial grace. And what’s still better is if that Imperial grace falls upon the most reprobate killer imaginable, reprobate in all ways save his Imperial devotion.

Think, finally, of this Marian miracle, from the Middle English Alphabet of Tales: a thieving, murderous knight captures a cleric of some sort. The “man of religion” asks the Knight to summon all his men together. He does, but one’s missing, the chamberlain. When the chamberlain is made to appear, he stares with mad eyes at the cleric, who compels him to reveal that he is, in reality, a fiend that had been encouraging the knight in his wicked ways, and he has waited for years on end to strangle the knight, but the knight, even amid his murdering, had always, every day, said an “Ave Maria.” That alone was enough to keep him safe. The knight falls on his knees before the cleric, asks for penance, and amends his life. And the tale ends like so:

And þis holie man commandid þis fend þat he sulde go his ways, and nevur aftur presume to dissese any creatur þat had deuocion vnto our̛ ladie, Saynt Mari.

[And this holy man commanded this fiend that he should go his way, and never afterwards presume to trouble any creature devoted to our lady, Saint Mary].

That’s good, to a point. But if you’re not in Mary’s camp, watch your neck!

[thanks to Wendy Belcher for offering several key corrections to the above! much appreciated]


Belcher, Wendy Laura. “Mary Saves the Man-Eater: Value in the Medieval Ethiopian Marian Miracle Tale of “The Cannibal of Qəmər”.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 29-49. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0013.

Kleiner, Michael, and Wendy Laura Belcher. “Appendix: The Cannibal of Qəmər.” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 8, no. 1 (2019): 138-144. doi:10.1353/dph.2019.0019

Appleyard, David. “Ethiopian Christianity.” Chapter. In The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, edited by Ken Parry, 2008. doi:10.1002/9780470690208.ch6

Crummey, Donald. “Church and Nation: the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahedo Church (from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century).” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Christianity, edited by Michael Angold, 5:457–87. Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521811132.020.

Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. Medieval Africa, 1250–1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511811036.

Salvadore, Matteo. “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306-1458.” Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (2010): 593-627. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41060852.

and, for further reading, various works by Habtamu Tegegne

William of Auvergne, on Delirium as the Highest Activity of the Human Soul

William of Auvergne (Bishop of Paris, 1228 to his death in 1249) was a key figure in Christianizing material flowing into Latin Christian theological philosophy from Arabic and classical Greek philosophy. His On the Immortality of the Soul, long misattributed to Dominicus Gundissalinus, proves its point by arguing, chiefly, that the particularly human soul is distinct from the body and has aims and purposes that are completely independent from the body. Plants and animals have, like us, immaterial souls; they too are alive; but their souls die with their bodies, because their souls have no aims apart from the body. Feeding, what the vegetable soul does, and sensing, what the animal soul does, have no purpose once the body’s gone.

William argues this point because Aristotle and his commentators at least propose the possibility of a mortal human soul; chiefly, however, he has to argue this point because God’s justice demands it. Given that the wicked often flourish in this world, and the good suffer, then punishment and reward must happen elsewhere. Otherwise, we should just abandon ourselves to every vice (24-26).

Establishing the independence of soul from body leads William to make these unusual arguments:

“the more [the intellective power] becomes involved with and immersed in the body, the more its intellectual knowing will be obscure, dull, slow and mixed with errors. But the more it separates and withdraws itself from the body, the more it will be sharp, clear, quick, and free from errors” (28)

“But it is certain that prophecy and revelation are the strongest and most noble activities of the intellective power while it is in the body, and it is very much strengthened for these by the greatest bodily impediments and injuries. This is the reason why prophetic illumination or revelation hardly ever occurs except with a great weakening of the body, as occurs in ecstasy” (30)

the soul’s “proper activity is strengthened in separation from the body and not as a result of the body, as can be seen in rapture and ecstasy” (38)

“For divine revelations and prophecies are what chiefly order human life, and every art and every wisdom yields to and is subjected to them” (39; Revelatines enim divinae ac prophetiae maxime ordinant vitam humanam, et omnis ars et omnis sapientia cedit eis atque subicitur)

“those suffering from melancholy, and delirious persons who, though they are prevented from reasoning about these sensible things, still at times see much concerning lofty things and foretell the future, as if they were prophesying” (42; et hoc euidenter apparet in melancholicis aegris et freneticis, qui licet prohibiti sint ratiocinari de sensibilibus, tamen de sublimibus multa vident et praedicunt futura quasi divinantes)

“melancholy persons who otherwise do not prophesy at all, but do prophesy when they are in the grip of this illness” (42; quia frenetici arrepti morbo tun divinant et alio tempore non)

William had already made points like these in his more general, much long De anima:

ecstasy is “the departure of the mind, in accord with the meaning of the word, and the proper raising of the human mind above itself as if upon a height from which it sees itself and its own and other things as if below itself” (De Anima VI.32 (II, 191b-192a), qtd 30n21)

“And it is known from experience that the intellective power is strengthened to such an extent by the gravest illnesses of the body that many souls foretell and prophesy about the deaths of their own bodies and at times of others” (De Anima VI.5 (II, 161a), qtd 31 n22)

Teske’s note on the William’s first proof-from-ecstasy directs me to Augustine’s Literal Commentary on Genesis, Book XII, where Augustine treats the apostle Paul’s remarks on a man taken up into the Third Heaven. I don’t quite see the connection, however. What’s striking to me is that William relies on a proof of certain “out-of-body” experiences to establish the fundamental independence of our soul from our bodies. These conditions — ecstasy, melancholy, and delirium — he recognizes as at once sicknesses, as a form of liberation, and as a form of cognition. For what the afflicted person often experiences is access, quite accidental, to the higher truths: prophesy, religious revelation, the very foundations of the claims about God’s mercy, justice, and providence that undergird William’s treatise.

William wouldn’t be the only one to make such arguments. The treatise on the soul by John de la Rochelle (d. 1245) — also at the University of Paris, and known to William — while discussing the “two faces of reason,” namely, the lower reason, concerned with sensible things, and the higher reason, concerned with sublime, observes “Unde et phraenetici prophetant et multa de subliminibus interdum vident, quamvis prohibiti sint rationcinari de sensibus istis” (Thus it is that the delirious sometimes prophesy and see many sublime things, although they are barred from reasoning about these {work on translation!}]. Here, then, we witness William’s fellow Parisian academic philosopher proving the higher reason via truths that are, in fact, inaccessible to reason. The proof of the powers of the rational soul rest on its capacity to be taken beyond reason.

It is of course banal to observe that it was once believed that mentally ill people had special access to truths. But to argue, as William does, that melancholy and delirium provide access to the highest modes of intellection, perhaps can still surprise us. Loosely speaking, William wants the mind to be independent of the body; freeing the mind from the body means freeing it from the senses; it also means freeing it from the routine cause and effect of things bumping up against and past each other in this merely material world. Madness — because of its indifference to the senses, to what we mundane people would say “is really happening” — liberates us. Because the mad can think anything, they are free from the body.

But they are also free in ways that can make no sense to them. The true prophet is the prophet who can’t stop themselves from doing it. Many of you will know Margery Kempe, who begged to be relieved of the gift of ecstasy. She didn’t want to cry constantly over a Christ crucified so long ago. Her book wants us to know she can’t help it, and because she can’t help it, she’s authentic.

William is trying to prove something else, however, something perhaps more fundamental: the particularity of the human soul, what’s generally called the rational soul, to distinguish it from the vegetable and sensible souls of plants and nonhuman animals. The rational soul is typically understood as concerned with causes; as able to abstract to general truths; to be able to syllogize. And it can, but that’s not its highest modes. Its highest modes, William avers, come from a certain passivity, the terror and misery even of the heavens forcing themselves onto us. We are most ourselves when we cannot know ourselves, when we are made conduits for truths beyond our capacity to articulate them.

Further reading:

A dissertation on William’s demonology

Drew Daniel, The Melancholic Assemblage.

László F. Földényi’s Melancholy.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization [on the gradual elimination of the mad to speak of any truth outside or beyond their own, personal madness]

Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, for a translation of pseudo-Aristotle Problema XXX, a medical consideration of melancholy, and why “all those who have beocme eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics”

Sample of manuscript: here, and here,

“You have turned us into great lovers of death”: Animals, Freedom, and Aristotle’s Book of the Apple


Bnf italien 917 37r – see also here, and here

According to its 1968 translation, the earliest surviving version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de Pomo is Arabic (by the 10th century, the Kitab al-Tuffahah). It could have been translated from Greek, or Syriac, but the version we have is Arabic (and a version may still be in Aleppo): it would be translated from thence into Persian (Tarjuma-imaḳala-i- Arasṭaṭalis), and independently into Hebrew (the Sefer ha-Tappuah), by Abraham Ben Samuel, in Barcelona (1230s) and from Hebrew into Latin (before 1258?), perhaps by Manfred of Sicily himself. Despite some skepticism about its authenticity, the work entered the late medieval university corpus of Aristotle, where it wouldn’t be dislodged until after the Middle Ages (notably, print versions of Latin exist only in incunabula; Arabic manuscript copies date as late as the 17th c; a Hebrew print version survives from the late 18th). Other medieval translations exist, for example, into Catalan. Mary Rousseau’s superb introduction to her translation attests to some 90 extant manuscripts of the Latin: perhaps more have been found since.

The Book of the Apple adapts Plato’s Phaedo — the account of Sophocles’ deathbed lecture on the forms — to render Aristotle palatable for monotheists. In both the Persian and Latin (and presumably in their sources), Aristotle’s cheerily on his death bed, discoursing to his grieving students, as he smells an apple to keep himself alive. At the end, his energy dips, he drops the apple, and he dies. Each aims to dissuade us from the lusts of the body; to rejoice in death; and to hope for permanent things. And each has its Aristotle, unlike the actual philosopher, argue that the material world begins in time, and that the rational soul outlives the body. Given the popularity of the work in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, its lessons must have been ecumenical.

The Persian version is, after a fashion, philosophical (and indeed, all versions belong to a genre counted as “philosophical,” the protreptic). Aristotle’s disciples ask him a series of hard questions — what is brightness? does it come from warmth? what kind of knowledge does the present give us of the future? are mixed things worse than pure things? — but his responses are, effectively, supremely confident assertions. No one really worries about how to get to the answers. The Hebrew version is somehow even less worried. Aristotle speaks, at length, and his students accept it. He observes, for instance, that some say the soul shares its existence with the body: note, these people say, how boys cannot learn the sciences as easily as adults do, or how sickness makes us less able to think well. If that’s the case, the soul grows and diminishes with the body itself. But, he insists, “these men look for and apprehend the great science of God and His works in the members of the body, in its essence and sinews” (58). And that, apparently, is sufficient to disprove his opponents.

What the Hebrew/Latin Aristotle offers, too, unlike the Arabic/Persian Apple, is a contempt for the life of beasts. While the former never references nonhuman animals, the latter offers this:

you, if you are disturbed and afraid of death, which is the departure of the soul from the unknowing body and its entrance into comprehension of the divine degrees and union with wise and happy soul — you do not allow knowledge its proper rank or value; you are submerged in a bestial spirit along with other beasts. (52)

people must purge their soul “of its impurities,” for it must depart “from the uncleanness which is imprisoned with it–which is produced out of earth, and pursues the pleasures of eating, drinking, and amusement, as do other animals (52)

“the first ones we mentioned,” that is, those who follow philosophical precepts without understanding them or judging them as good or evil, are like “children,” or “like beasts. There is no difference between them and the beasts which are led along the right path by the man who bridles them. These are men who do not know how to think for themselves” (57)

And, from Manfred’s prologue:

he is so greatly impeded by the darkness of the companion [the body] subjected to him, from which every weakness of his corruption originates, that he is deformed by the vice of earthly desire and, like a beast of burden, understands nothing (48)

men, who seeking pleasures so licentiously, differ not at all from the beasts (47-48)

Becoming a philosopher means becoming a human being, while enjoying the pleasures of the body means being an animal. So we see, for example, a late medieval ritual of cutting the horns from the beani, the first-year students, so that they can advance into the higher ranks: see Ruth Mazo Karras’s From Boys to Men, and for a medieval witness, the Manuale scholarium (Heidelberg, 1481), where two upperclassman insult and harrass a beanus:

Cam[illus]. First, I’ll get rid of his horns. Bart, hand me the saw. Little ass, would you fight against your physician?
Bar[toldus]. Check his attack, and restrain him like an intractable horse. Take care that he doesn’t strike you with his cruel hoofs, or injure you with his horned head.
Cam. How hard and deeply rooted are these horns! Look, the saw is broken, and almost all its rotten teeth shattered. Now look at your horns, violent beast! Before this you couldn’t see them, and didn’t believe us.

As the ritual shows us, “humanity” is always a moving target, and entering it is not only a matter of practicing dominance, routinely, but also of believing that someone, out there, is naturally suited for dominance. For university students, it’s the beani; for the Liber de Pomo, it’s the body itself.

The body is unknowing, heavy, a prison, an impediment; it is unfree, unable to think for itself. If the rational soul is the free soul, then we can sense how the notion of “freedom” depends on the idea of “subjection” or “subservience.” The free soul doesn’t know that it’s free unless there’s something that it dominates, or that it imagines that’s fit to dominate. We can witness, then, in the Liber de Pomo, an infection in the body of philosophical thought, namely, a belief in natural dominance at the heart of any claim to liberty or freedom. The claim to be thinking freely, necessarily brings with it a claim that others are not thinking freely, like animals, with all that entails. In this case, what’s to be dominated is the body, those beings thought of as excessively embodied (animals), and those beings who have let themselves be dominated by their bodies (non-philosophers).

It is in this context that we need to hear the Liber de Pomo‘s inherent praise of suicide. Aristotle’s disciples marvel at his deathbed happiness, and they try to understand whether the contempt for this corporeal world means we should rush to our deaths as soon as we find the necessary philosophical conviction. The Hebrew/Latin version even imagines an Abraham, perfectly enlightened, who might have justifiably killed himself (56). It is shocking to find statements like these in a work so widely read in religious traditions generally opposed to suicide, shocking, that is, until we realize that the Liber de Pomo is not arguing that existence is meaningless: rather, it’s that bodily death frees us for a better life, and leaves everyone else behind in a life unworthy of the name.

For in the Liber de Pomo, to become a lover a death is, at once, to become certain that one has oriented oneself towards the better life and convinced that those who haven’t are lovers of the wrong thing, namely, the body and its pleasures. This work’s faint call for suicide does not suggest that non-existence lies on the other side of death. If anything, non-existence is on the side of the only apparently alive, because things here are mutable, where everything that supposedly is is itself only for the briefest while. And with that, we can sense how the love of “freedom,” the love of escaping constraint, also consigns everything else to subjection, contempt, and a life not meriting the respect due to truly living things.

For more on these developing ideas, see my work on Marguerite Porete….

Women and Ladies: A hint at a reading of the Life of the Countess Yolanda


Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden [Bruder Hermanns Leben der Gräfin Iolande von Vianden] concerns the daughter of Henry I of Vianden and Margaret, Marchioness of Namur, struck with a desire, as she enters her teens, to become a Dominican nun at Marienthal, now in present-day Luxembourg. Her worldly family resists: her mother, particularly, who at one point intrudes on her daughter’s bed, strips her of her borrowed clerical habit, and leaves her naked, compelling her either to stay in bed in her parents’ castle, or to get dressed in the fancy, worldly garb her parents prefer she wear — she also leads a band of armed men who extract her from a nunnery by theatening to burn it down around her; her father, more distant, but also stricken by unending and, eventually, mortal grief when his favorite daughter abandons him, and the whole of her worldly family, for the cloister; and her brother, Henry, provost of the Cathedral of Cologne, who, at a family council to determine what to do about this meddlesome girl, strikes her full in the face.

There’s no sense, as in the Middle English “Why I Can’t Be a Nun,” that a nunnery is a place unfit for any girl: and no wonder, because Brother Hermann is sympathetic, writing something as close to a saint’s life as he can (indeed, he argues that Yolanda suffered more than classic virgin martyrs, like Catherine and Agnes, in that these martyrs had to suffer only for a day, and that they never felt betrayed by the people who shared their belief or whom they expected to protected them: what Yolanda suffers is a protracted sense of being let down). The work is closer to the Life of Christina of Markyate, who, about a century earlier, in England, likewise braved her family, and refused her lineal obligations, to become a religious woman.

For English readers, Yolanda’s life is most easily available in Richard H. Lawson’s 1995 translation for Camden House; for this, he relies on John Meier’s 1889 edition of a 17th-century Jesuit transcription of Hermann’s original German poem. The same Jesuit, Alexander von Wilheim, also translated the work into Latin, which he published in 1674. Any direct medieval witness to her life was presumed lost, until 1999, when Guy Berg rediscovered the manuscript, the Codex Mariendalensis, at Castle Ansemberg. The Codex matters, for among other reasons, because it’s the earliest witness, some claim, to the language of Luxembourg (for a skeptical treatment about this ideological hunt for the past, see here).

There’s not a great deal in English on Yolanda. See, for example, Elisabeth van Houts in Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300, here, or Enrica de Domínguez, here. There’s much to do in this work: studies of consent and daughters (see Jennifer Alberghini’s 2018 CUNY dissertation for such a study in Middle English); fanciful links between Lacan’s reading of Antigone and Yolanda’s equally unrelenting splendor; attention to tears and other extra-rational means of persuasion; Yolanda’s encounter with famous churchmen like Albert the Great (whom she convinces to help ordain her); the history of religious institutions (Franciscans come in for scorn, for example) and quasi-institutional religion — beguines figure in this as one possible model for Yolanda; and especially, for my purposes, the final bit, where Hermann tries to navigate his way through the problem of clerical misogyny.

For the final section of the work tries to split the difference between “women” and “females.” From Larson’s translation (rendered, I’m afraid, nearly obsolete by Claudine Moulin’s 2009 edition from the Codex):

Yolanda could well be termed both woman and female (wîf unde vrôiwe beide). But there is sometimes a difference among women, and I had better write it down (dat soilde ich nôede schrîven). Among females are those undeserving of the name “women” (doch under vrôiwen sint unwîf) — women without women’s nature (wîf sint sy sunder wîves lîf). They are rare among women. A woman’s name and nature are very holy and agreeable: God called his Mother “Woman” (got sîne múder nante wîf). But females are to observe here how good the name of “woman” is, for all females are not women (alle vrôiwen sint nyt wîf). Yolanda can be called “woman” without any doubt. She had a pure and chaste heart” (69-70)

Vrôiwen corresponds to the modern German Frauen, and Wiven to Weib (neuter in modern German, so the plural nominative’s also Weib). Hermann makes no such distinction between men, and no wonder, first of all, because his work’s about a girl. His work, more importantly, participates in a European clerical culture that had become, by his day, suffused with misogyny. He’s compelled to split the difference between “female” and “women,” to preserve an outside to which he can compare Yolande — and so he’s not, simply, blaming the worldly desires of parents, which is to say, his patrons — and, finally, to mark another gender, one inaccessible to most, untainted and untouched by the abuse heaped upon “females.” If he’s writing to nuns, as he probably is, then he’s trying to get them to behave like “women.” We can, necessarily, draw a line, however wavering, to more recent formulations, like those that distinguish nastily between “females” and “ladies.”

But during our seminar, we discovered something odd: Hermann calls Yolanda’s parents “dy vrôiwe gut, der werde man” (The good woman, the worthy man: all trans Larson’s); she wants to go a convent “van vrôiwen ordene” (belonging to a female order); an older woman, at line 252, advises her about whether she should become a nun: the woman’s called a “vrôiwe.” Yolanda is called a “juncvrôiwe” more than once. That same “good woman” is a good “wîf” at 35.

It’s not that Brother Hermann has insulted every woman in his Life by calling them “females.” Rather, as I suggested in seminar, it’s that he’s discovered at the end of the Life that he needs a new categorical system, or to reimpose an old one, and invents, on the fly, a terminological hierarchy that he has used nowhere else. People who know this particular German will know more than me, but, for now, I think there’s much to be done with this odd linguistic, and sexist, tic.

[further reading:
an online multimedia project about Yolanda from 1999/2000. It is wonderfully of its era

Heinz Sieburg, from Luxembourg University, on the Yolanda Epic

Jean Portante, on the Codex (typical moment: “C’est par conséquent aussi l’un des rares textes décrivant les mœurs et le contexte historique, culturel et spirituel, à la fois dans les comtés et les châteaux impliqués, ceux de Vianden et de Luxembourg en l’occurrence, et dans les couvents de la région”)

Miranda Hajduk, CUNY Grad Student, who wrote this blog post for my class

A translation of Wiltheim’s 17th-century Latin translation, into modern German

And, via Wikipedia, there’s an 1832 English poem about Yolanda! Fascinating topic for a student of medievalism

Historical Sources of the German Middle Ages, on Yolanda]

A bit on medieval animal trials

This evening, I’m part of a pre-performance conversation for a play called Twelve Angry Animals, written by Reginald Rose. The talk’s at 6pm, and the play at 8.

Jessica Grindstaff, Phantom Limb Company
Naama Harel, Columbia University
Catherine Young, Princeton University
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and CUNY Grad Center
Joshua Williams (moderator), Tisch Drama

We were asked to talk for about 8-10 minutes, more or less informally. Here’s what I just wrote:

I’m here to talk about medieval animal trials. The key thing to note here is how spotty the records are: some medieval people sometimes in some places put animals on trial, and what kinds of trials the animals were subjected to depended on the kinds of animals being tried. It’s much harder to punish a swarm of insects or rats for eating what we’d rather they hadn’t than it is to execute a pig or a horse for taking human life. In the former case, we’re likely to witness abjurations — cursing that is — directed against a swarm that isn’t likely to take any notice of it. But the very apparent ineffectiveness of the curse suggests that the curse’s purpose concerns something other than the targeted swarm. I’ll come back to that at the end of my remarks.

First, though, I want to stress that it’s not that medieval people were, sometimes, more credulous than we are, whoever we are, or more willing to extend animals the benefit of the doubt. If anything, your average medieval trained thinker – the kind of people more likely to leave records than most – is much more skeptical about animal responsibility than anyone familiar with modern ethology. The key point here is that mainstream medieval thinkers universally denied nonhuman animals a rational soul: without a rational soul, they could have no moral responsibility. So, Philip de Beaumanoir, author of a thirteenth-century French law book, observes that, yes, people do “punish animals when they kill someone: for example if a sow or other animal kills a child, they hang it and draw it.” “But,” Philip writes, “this should not be done, for dumb animals have no discrimination of good and evil, and for this reason the punishment is lost on them, for punishment should be executed to avenge the offense, and so that the offender will know and understand that he has a certain penalty for a certain crime.” More about that later (and, not incidentally, thanks to Julie K. Chamberlin, whose recent dissertation I helped supervise, for guiding me towards this book!) For now, let’s just observe that Philip says, yes, if I were to deliberately drive my horse into a crowd of children, I should be held liable. If my horse wanders away from me and injures someone, I should pay for the damages; but if it kills someone, I can’t be tried for murder, and neither can it. And if a horse is unruly, I might even use that unruliness at my defense.

What’s notable to me is that Philip feels compelled to consider the problem. It’s not unheard of to want to punish an animal in the same way you might punish a human. Let me offer another example: a twelfth-century cleric, Gerald of Wales, in his History and Topography of Ireland, considers the case of a certain Parisian lion that a woman, Johanna, fell in love with. Lion and woman were both executed. But, Gerald insists, “the beast is ordered to be killed, not for the guilt, from which he is excused as being a beast, but to make the remembrance the act a deterrent, calling to mind the terrible deed.”

People are going to execute animals, Philip and Gerald both know that. The question is why? We can get a sense of why by looking to medieval England, where, to my knowledge, you’re not going to find any animals on trials. It’s not that English horses were less unruly, or its lions less alluring, than those on the continent. It’s that the English crown already had a legal system in place to deal with the problem, namely, the Deodand. Any case of accidental death would attract the attention of the coroner. He would investigate the death, determine what had caused it – maybe a ladle that’s too short, a cartwheel that shattered, a hungry pig meeting a helpless infant – assess the monetary value of the cause, and levy that as a fine to be paid to the crown. Whatever the cases of accidental death, the king eventually got it all under control, ensuring that he remained his realm’s master of life and death.

Or let’s look at the late medieval Low Countries. New data on animal trials has been scarce. Many researchers have been content to rely on already published material, or even to reach back to that foundational, but slightly credulous work on animal trials by E. P. Evans, published in 1906. But we have a bright spot, and that’s a history doctoral student at Yale, Mireille J. Pardon, who’s working on violence and social control. I’m drawing from a paper I heard her give this May in Kalamazoo, at the big medieval conference. While looking at as yet unedited and unpublished late medieval archives of punishment in Bruges, Pardon compiled some shocking statistics: for the period she was studying, she found that 335 people had been executed in the city, and 64 animals; in greater Bruges, 127 humans, and 45 animals. You can do the math on the ratios. No wonder that clerics complained about the execution of animals: in some places, they may have been quite common!

I’m struck by one of the records Pardon quoted: it’s about a certain master Jacques, paid for having “fait justice,” done justice. on two pigs, which had killed a child.

Justice for whom or for what?

Banishing rats is less about the rats that the banishing. It’s a performance of disapproval; it’s lodging a complaint; it’s asserting, publicly, that what’s happened isn’t okay. And what’s the point of executing an animal? It’s not to frighten other animals into respecting our lives more than they’re accustomed to do. I doubt even master Jacques believed that he was dissuading future pigs from consuming future children. Rather, the point is to do justice. A person who’s been killed has been harmed, in a couple of ways: they’ve been killed, of course, but they’ve also been disrespected. And a human who’s been killed by an animal is doubly disrespected, because animals are, in themselves, made for our use, at least according to mainstream medieval thought. That’s why I believe that executing animals doesn’t have much to do with the animals; it has to do with repairing a harm to the human community. It has to do with recognizing the dead human as having been murdered. It’s about restoring dignity to humans by reasserting their unique condition as the one form of murderable life.

Of course, historically speaking, and indeed in the present, most humans don’t get that recognition. Any discussion of humans, as a whole, is going to run aground on the actual conditions of life for most humans. But we can observe, too, that the point of execution can, logically, have little to do with the executed animal, or person: they’ll be dead, and that’s the end of their possibility of regret. The execution is about repairing the injured dignity of the community, and to that, we can ask whether we might find other, more effective, and more morally difficult methods of getting dignity back.

Thank you. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Gens and Populus in the History of the Kings of Britain: translation problems

I’m sure this topic has been covered thoroughly often; and now I’m doing it too, less thoroughly.

The translation of the History of the Kings of Britain for Penguin, by Lewis Thorpe (1913-77), published in the mid 60s, was my first time meeting Geoffrey of Monmouth, and I suspect it remains a standard classroom edition. Neil Wright and Julia Crick, via Boydell & Brewer, have done the work the honor it deserves, but the version most of us are likely to read remains Thorpe’s.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is more than a little interested in grouping people. The Trojans, Greeks, Picts, Saxons, Britons, Italians (which is to say, the Romans), Gauls, Irish, and, among them, a few others, like the Huns and the Scots: all of these are quite distinct, for Geoffrey, and intermarriage — barring the occasional intermarriage with a Roman — tends to trouble him.

It’s not, of course, that Geoffrey witnesses to actual ethnic divisions among the peoples of Northern Europe. It’s that he’s inheriting categories from his sources, which include the early medieval histories of Gildas, Ninnius, and Bede; and it’s that medieval peoples sorted themselves into groupings that they liked to imagine were bound by natural kinship, as Walter Pohl, among others, have argued. Geoffrey’s very insistence on the kinship divisions among these people, and his insistence that conquerors come, homogeneously, as a “people,” witnesses to a myths of ethnic division that many modern people have dismayingly continued to promote. His history, like any history, is also a work of motivated fiction.

Thorpe doesn’t help us much, however, in supporing these observations. Here are some of his translations, with a few from Wright to compare:

“Britain is inhabited by five races of people” (54) – quinque…populis

“When Brutus realized that these people were of the same race as his ancestors, he stayed some time with them” (55) – Agnita igitur ueterum conciuium prosapia, moratus est Brutus apud eos [Once Brutus learned of their descent from his ancient countrymen, he lived among them; Wright trans, 8; Faletra trans., 44; “Perceiving their distant kinship, Brutus lives for a time among these slaves” — note that Faletra is a translation from a single early manuscript, and Wright is from several]

“for they have found it intolerable that they should be treated in your kingdom otherwise than as the purity of their noble blood demands” (56) – serenitas nobilitatis eius expeteret [Wright, trans 8: otherwise than their serene nobility demanded; Faletra, 45; “being treated in your realm with less dignity than their lineage demands”]

“The nobility which flourishes in him, and his fame, which is well-known to us, show him to be of the true race of Priam and Anchises [quem ex genere Priami et Anchisae creatum]” (63) [Wright trans, 16: “descent from the race of Priam and Anchises; Faletra trans, 50; “as is the nobility that pulses through his veins, being a descendant of the line of Priam and Anchises”]

“The two Kings took hostages from the Consuls, and the showed them mercy, leading their own troops off to Germany. No sooner had Belinus and Brennius begun harassing the German people than the Romans repented of the treaty just described” (97); “Sumptis igitur obsidibus, ueniam donauerunt reges cohortesque suas in Germaniam duxerunt. Cumque populum infestare institissent” &c [Wright trans., 56: The kings granted their request, took hostages and led their troops against Germany. Once they had begun their assault on that people”; Faletra, 76, “and leading their own forces into Germany. As soon as the Britons and their allies began to attack Germany”]

“Cassivelaunus therefore sent a message to Androgeus, asking the Duke to make peace for him with Julius, for otherwise the majesty of the race [ne dignitas gentis ex qua natus fuerat] into which he, Androgeus, had been born would come to an end with the capture of its King” (117) [Wright trans. 78, lest his capture should dishonour the race to which they both belonged; Faletra, 91, “lest the honor of his native people by sullied by the capture of its King”]

“Caradocus felt that Maximianus had a right to Britain, for he came both from the family of the Emperors and from a British origin” (135) – matre uero et natione Romanus ex utroque sanguine regalem ferebat procreationem. Iccirco igitur stabilitatem pacis promittebat quia sciebat illum et ex genere imperatorum et ex origine Britonum ius in Britanniam habere. [Wright trans, 98; whilst his mother and his nation were Roman were Roman, so that he was of royal blood on both sides. Hence Caradocus could promise an enduring peace, since he knew that Maximianus’ claim to Britain rested both on imperial descent and British birth; Faletra, 107, “who is Roman by birth but also descends from the royal line of the Britons”]

Royal blood is Geoffrey’s locution, and certainly a significant mystification of aristocratic power. But Thorpe’s rendering of genus and populus as “race” needs to be rethought (as Wright has done, to a degree). On the one hand, it’s advantageous to rethinking the modern pseudo-sciences of race to observe how minutely Geoffrey divides “racial” grouping: all of these people would be adjudged, more or less, white in the modern era. On the other hand, what’s left out of this translation is the way that whiteness promised mastery to all whites, emancipating them to the degree that it gave them some other group to dominate.

Whatever inequities existing among white people in the Americas in the eighteenth century, for example, they were all the masters of people they identified as Black. That sense of the kind of democratic brotherhood of whiteness, core to modern racial thinking, isn’t at all present in Geoffrey of Monmouth. He’s quite dismissive of the peasants, of whatever stock. When Brutus recognizes the enslaved Trojans as his countrymen, he’s recognizing, presumably, only those people he recognizes as worthy of having a lineage: only the aristocrats. And that subtle, yet significant, elitism of Geoffrey is what gets lost when we translate genus as “race.”