‘Kynes Craft’: Animal Labor and Brute Rationality in Piers Plowman

Here’s my paper for the 2019 International Piers Plowman Society in Miami, Session 25, “Post-Humanist Langland,” organized by Adin Lears and Wan-Chuan Kao.

Welcome to my first time talking about Piers Plowman in public. As you all know, one of Langland’s chief additions to the C-text is Reason’s upbraiding of the dreamer for what Reason understands as his laziness. Today, I’m going to wonder just what Reason is, and wonder at what it is that Reason wants the dreamer to do.

What’s on offer today is the first public hint of what might be my third book project, whose necessarily tentative title is The Irrational Animal. It’ll track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing, medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, for example — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, with all that implied for their moral, political, and legal considerability.

Exploring the social danger of the claim to Reason thus requires a certain suspicion about claims to rationality. I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason. A doctrinaire deconstructionist reaction would point out that all abstract concepts fail when subjected to a sufficiently rigorous investigation. So, perhaps predictably, I’m going to follow how claims to Reason collapse when we try to make them live up to their pretensions.

Back to the text at hand. Taxonomies of Reason abound in the classics of Piers Plowman criticism, and I’m going to assume you know them better than I do. In that material, the questions concern the distinct spheres of activity for Kynd Wit, Conscience, and Reason, key allegorical figures in Piers since at least its A text. I’m happy that critical tradition exists, and have no interest in correcting it; but neither do I have any interest in expanding it. Instead I’m going to try to open a new path. I wonder at bit at Derek Pearsall’s note in his C-Text edition, where he explains “Reason is the personification of the waking dreamer’s own rational self-analysis“: that’s slightly circular reasoning, yes? To get us out of the analytical circle we’re stuck in whenever we presume to know what reason is—in this case, Reason is Rational is Analytical is Admirable, because of course self-analysis is admirable —I’m going to lean harder on Reason itself, by not presuming that we humans have it, or that we know what it is, or that we know what its effects or demands or social force might be.

The particular Piers passage that’s going to lurk in the background of my paper is this:  the Dreamer has just finished a dream in which Reason finally establishes himself as the chief of the King’s advisers; he then awakes in Cornhill, a somewhat disreputable London locale, where he meets Conscience and Reason again, and Reason accosts him, because he sees the Dreamer as a good-for-nothing vagabond. Reason conducts a mean-spirited job placement interview: can you serve in a church? can you cook? load a cart? bail hay? can you stay out in a field all night, guarding grain against thieves? Can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

I’m struck by a number of things here: the emphasis on field labor, about which more later, but as a hint: I’m hoping to do more work on the habitual animalization of farmworkers in late medieval literature. I’m also struck especially by the way that “kyne,” livestock, is echoed in “kynes,” kind of. Might we hear “kynes craft,” a kind of occupation or skill, as the shadow of a phrase we could also hear as animal labor? What is it actually that Reason is demanding the Dreamer do? What does “being Reasonable” actually look like? And does it look anything at all like thinking?

To explore these possibilities, I’m going put Langland’s Reason not in relation to Langland’s own complicated, precise psychological mapping, nor in relation to key doctrinal mappings of Reason — those of Aquinas, especially — but rather in relation to three things: the first is animality, then a sampling of the many other personifications of reason we find in medieval literature, and, before I bring this all together, a bit of Max Horkheimer.

Following and developing Aristotle’s model of the tripartite soul, medieval thinkers chiefly understood that nonhuman animals possess only the vegetative soul — that’s the principle of both growth and life itself —and sensible soul, which allows them to move and react to stimuli. Humans were the sole kind of mortal life that possessed both these first two souls as well as the rational soul. Humans therefore are the uniquely rational animals.

I’ve long been interested in a passage in Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will where he takes pains to demonstrate that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, well, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. To prove we have reason, and thus to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine observes, naturally enough, that humans dominate animals routinely; sometimes they get the best of us, but in the long term, we’re in charge of them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?” Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s no more eager to nail down precisely what reason is: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” For Augustine, whatever reason might be, it is at least this fundamental enabler of human superiority.

The Piers Plowman critical tradition has devoted much attention to determining just what Langland means by “Reason.” Without devaluing that work, I’m just going to mark that for my present purposes, the key point in Langland, as with Augustine, is that Reason is top dog in the hierarchy of psychological qualities: a host of qualities crowd into the king’s court in Piers B and C Passus 4, but Reason’s ultimately left in charge. In the C Text, Passus 5, the Dreamer meets both Conscience and Reason, but Conscience drops out: it’s only Reason that rebukes him. Whatever the specific functions of Reason might be, we can simply mark its preeminence in these passus, while also recalling how it functions as a kind of placeholder or even a kind of encampment for human difference from nonhuman life. As in Augustine, Reason is a kind of principle of superiority.

First placeholder conclusion, then: in encountering Reason, if we assume that the dreamer is meeting a figure from what can call the spiritual tradition of Reason, then the dreamer is coming into contact with the essential element of his own humanity and the sine qua non of human worldly preëminence.

But I’m also going to quickly mark a medieval tradition of personified Reason, from Augustine and Isidore through the early fifteenth century, because however familiar Langland must have been with the psychological and spiritual tradition of Reason, he — or his readers at least — must also have had some familiarity with what we can loosely call the literary or personification tradition of Reason. In that tradition, in all its varieties, we can get a sense of what Reason is not according to its abstract functions, but according to what it tells us to do.

I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason isn’t a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even, or at least not very often, logical induction. As the inheritors or victims of the so-called “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed. Nor in this tradition is Reason clearly marked off from, say, Synderesis, that “spark of conscience” or “practical reason” or the habit of right action, whatever this important term in scholastic philosophy meant for determining just what Reason’s particular bailiwick might be among a set of equivalently powerful mental faculties. Instead, in the literary and personification tradition, Reason tends to be alone and in charge–just as Langland’s Reason also ends up singular and in charge–and tends to be a figure that essentially advises making peace with the prevailing circumstances: here Reason’s not a figure or function of resistance, nor of new thought, but rather of deliberate accommodation, where any analysis it offers always draws its interlocutor to a foreordained conclusion of just getting along with things as they are. In short, Reason just wants us to be reasonable.

The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personified figures of Reason. This early dialogue sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals, fleas and bugs, have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.

By contrast, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille has its personified Reason know the the origins of material things, pure Form, independent of matter, and especially the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. But Alan’s Reason has its limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and only Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further.

That’s one tradition of personified Reason, then, which has to do with knowledge. There’s another that has to do with Consolation. Isidore of Seville’s Synonyms is the key early text in this tradition; Middle English scholars perhaps know this work from Hoccleve’s fifteenth-century paraphrase of it in the first of his Series, when he turns to it to make sense of his period of mental illness: drawing on the shorter version of Isidore’s text, Hoccleve doesn’t focus on the section where Isidore has Reason spell out an appropriate way of life for virtuous men according to their professions, but rather on the section where Reason helps the unconsoled penitent understand more generally that his sorrow is a divine gift of punishment, so the more he sorrows, the closer he comes to God.

One last one, for now: Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation has its personified Reason advise the Lover to leave off his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachment to all the temporary gifts of Fortune. Here Reason has much in common with Boethius’s Lady Philosophy, that giant of consolation literature, especially when Reason insists that a life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression, whatever befell him, always stayed the same, and was found unchanged even by those who killed him with hemlock.” Reason here is not analytical; it is not mobile; it does not move the spirit upwards towards God, as it does in Alan of Lille, nor does it use knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine: instead, it demands imperturbability, an absolute indifference, total fixity,  a steady face whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from the face in death. The Consolation offered by Stoic Reason is that of simply not caring what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.

Which brings me, inevitably, to Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason Horkheimer offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in his critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice. “Pragmatism” is a word Horkheimer can scarcely say without spitting.

Personified reason, then, sometimes thinks—Augustine, Isidore to a degree, and Alan of Lille—and often not: Jean de Meun, and the sclerotic forms of instrumental reason Horkheimer identified. The consolation Hoccleve temporarily finds in Reason is one of learning to endure his suffering by convincing himself that God has sent it, that, in other words, of convincing himself that someone else must be doing the thinking. And, to that particular angle of the personified Reason tradition, I can add, finally, Piers, and the two lines I started with: can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?

Everyone here surely knows Anne Middleton’s analysis of C-5 in the context of the September 1388 Cambridge Parliament’s legislation on beggars and vagabonds. That Reason wants the Dreamer, primarily, to take up some kind of agricultural labor is, no doubt, due to the 1388 statute’s effort to regulate precisely that: it wasn’t concerned with guildspeople. But, as Middleton also observed, the 1388 Statute also tended to make all other occupations seem to be built on the base of agrarianism, so that, I would add, it tends to make all labor servile: people needed to know their place, to be put in it, and to remain in it, which is precisely what the Dreamer apologia ends up agitating for.

Second, and final placeholder conclusion: in C-5, as in a major strain of the personified reason tradition, Reason is not a principle of thinking, but of social quiescence. To behave “reasonably” is to be made productive for the existing order. And in his encounter with Reason, that fundamental quality of being human, the Dreamer loses the flexibility–what we might call the capacity for vagabond thought–that we think of as essential to human freedom. And if the prevailing social order is understood as fundamentally agricultural, then living reasonably means being made to live productively, which means being made to feed the system in a quite particular way. And that particularity is where I hear, without much straining, the echo of “kyne” in “kynes craft,” of cattle in work. For what Reason demands of the Dreamer, and thus in a larger sense of everyone it addresses, is a brute rationality, of making oneself useful. Like a cow is made to be useful. This is a Reason that, as always, animalizes most people; it’s just that in this case, to the degree that we let ourselves be hailed by its demand for rational activity, that is, by its demand for productive labor, we are agreeing to precisely that bovine animalization.

Thank you.


Middle Scots Misogynoir: On Teaching Dunbar’s “My ladye with the mekle lippis”

For the curious who won’t be able to be at the 2019 Medieval Academy of America Meeting in Philadelphia, my paper.  I’m delivering it at a roundtable on “Graduate Student Committee Special Session: Handling Issues of Inclusivity and Respect in the Medieval Studies Classroom as an Ally: Classes We Teach, Classes We Take,” Friday March 8, at 4:15-5:45. What follows feels a little elementary to me at this point, but I hoping the discussion can get us somewhere more complicated.

I’m going to be talking about a particular work: what it’s doing, how I’ve taught it, and some general cautions and guidelines for handling material like this. The poem is William Dunbar’s “My ladye with the mekle lippis,” that is, “My Lady with the Big Lips,” a Middle Scots parodic portrait comprising five five-line stanzas, dating from the first decade of the sixteenth century.[1] It’s terrifically racist, which I say here by way of a content note: it describes a black woman, lately arrived by ship, who has a large mouth, “like an ape,” with a cat-like nose, who’s like a toad to the touch, and whose skin shines “like soap.” Dunbar finishes by imagining knights jousting for her, with the loser forced to kiss her hips from behind — which surely recalls the Miller’s Tale – so providing sufficient data for historians to guess at the event he’s mockingly celebrating: the Tournaments of the Black Knight and Black Lady of either 1507 and 1508, or both, perhaps presided over by Elen More, a Black maidservant of Margaret Tudor.

Contemporary accountbooks list costs for the Black Lady’s costume and “chair triumphale”; perhaps predictably, they say nothing negative about either the lady or tournament. Neither does Robert Lindsay’s sixteenth-century history, which mostly provides a play-by-play of who unhorsed whom: there we learn that King James IV himself jousted as the Black Knight. By contrast, historians and critics from the nineteenth century until at least the midpoint of the last can scarcely contain their embarrassment over the honor done to a Black woman, dubious as it might have been, and treat the tournament with as much contempt as Dunbar himself did.[2]

This last Fall, I put this poem on my undergraduate History and Literature syllabus. The course focuses on cultures of race, racism, and myths of national belonging, from the Middle Ages to now. I’m fortunate to teach at Brooklyn College, CUNY, an institution whose student body reflects the ethnic diversity of Brooklyn itself; I would guess that the class was roughly 50% Black, and 20% white.

First of all, I wanted to use the poem to discuss misogynoir. Moya Bailey coined this term in 2008; from 2012 on, Trudy popularized the term on twitter: as they explain, misogynoir marks “the ways that anti-Blackness and misogyny combine to malign Black women in our world.” The poem’s focus on this Black woman’s body as repulsively animalized and oversexed, as at once disgusting and desirable because of her oversexualization, fits the second item in Kesiena Boom’s article on the tropes of Misogynoir, “The Hypersexual Jezebel”: Boom writes, “We are relegated to animalistic and primitive by suggesting that we’re unable to exercise self-control, an excuse used to obfuscate the abuse done to us.”

But I also wanted the poem to complicate a common historical narrative, which is that antiblack racism, and the concomitant, conjoined invention of whiteness and white supremacy, develops in the Anglophone world most fully from the mid-seventeenth century on. In class, we read, for example, a 1652 legal compilation from Barbados, which gradually subjected enslaved Black people to physical punishments that White indentured servants would be unlikely to suffer. The laws thus codified differing exposures to physical peril that, in turn, codified a supposedly “natural” white bodily supremacy and an equally “natural” black susceptibility to injury. The 2014 Verso book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequity in American Life, by Karen E Fields and Barbara J Fields, observes “A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed”: the ideology of racial inferiority — and accompanying ideology of white supremacy — required the rise of commonplace, systemic enslavement of Africans and people judged to be of African descent.

So, I ask the students, what do we do with this poem, which discovers what should be modern features of antiblack racism in a place and time where they ought not yet to exist? Though the target of the poem is likely far from what had been her home, and likely not willingly in Scotland, even though James IV did, for example, invite Black musicians to perform at his court, she is not necessarily enslaved. And, more importantly, Dunbar’s Scotland is not, as North America would be some 200 years later, a society and economy built on slavery and white supremacy.

Surely the point of teaching the Dunbar wouldn’t be to discover a transhistorical misogynoir, independent of enslavement and its aftereffects? That would be a disastrous finding from the perspective of the cultural study of racialization! I hope that the point would be to discover some of the raw materials of what would become misogynoir in, say, the parodic portrait, some of whose classed features — the snub nosed, large-hipped peasant girl — recall Chaucer’s Malyn, from his Reeve’s Tale, whom Chaucer wanted us to understand as a “mixed parentage” child, the monstrous offspring of noble and churlish blood. And my goal, too, was to historicize racism, to denaturalize its tropes by discovering their rhetorical, not merely descriptive, character: the soap-like quality ascribed to this woman’s skin has less to do with her skin than, perhaps, with a rhetorical trope recorded as early as the ninth-century Irish “Intoxication of the Ulstermen,” about a Black jester, whose skin is called “shiny.”[3]

What I also discovered, in one case at least, was that I was not just discussing misogynoir, but introducing students to the concept and providing them with a critical vocabulary to fight the prejudice they experienced in their own lives. I do wonder, though, whether the students needed the Dunbar to gain that vocabulary.

Which raises the final question, addressed perhaps to myself: as a medievalist, I taught the poem to challenge and complicate a standard historical narrative about the rise of antiblack racism that I would have only just introduced to my undergraduates. But I’m wondering who’s served by bringing in material like the Dunbar. I suspect myself of offering up the poem as an opportunity for me to put my antiracist bona fides on display: if Dunbar appalls me, then surely I must be one of the good whites.

Turning myself from smug ally to accomplice —about which, see the Jessica Powell and Amber Kelly article on the slide behind me — requires decentering myself from the conversation, and working with the students. Pay attention to what they want, particularly if you’re a white teacher like me: ask them whether the poem is worth teaching and why (my students said yes; next time, they might say no); let their experience and interests guide you; pay attention to what they say serves them. Your expertise, and if you’re tenured, your rootedness in the academy, gives you the skills and power to help your students get further along to where they say they want to go; and their experience, and yes, their own expertise, can keep your expertise in cultural history from becoming a smug display of superiority.

Thank you: I look forward to the discussion.

[1] Shocked to discover that Francis George Scott, scottish composer, sets first several stanzas to music, piano and baritone, in 1936. No recordings available.

[2] To date, the best interpretation of tournament and poem remains Aranye [Louise Olga] Fradenburg, City, Marriage, Tournament: Arts of Rule in Late Medieval Scotland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 244-64, especially 255-58. The most repugnant interpretation of the Dunbar may well be Robert F. Fleissner, “William Dunbar’s Sultry Pre-Shakespearean Dark Lady,” The Upstart Crow 3 (1980): 88-96, still worse not only because of its being reprinted in his self-published Shakespeare and Africa: The Dark Lady of His Sonnets Revamped and Other Africa-Related Associations (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2005), but also for its being delivered at a 1979 meeting of the College Language Association, in Washington DC, whose theme, Fleissner tells us, was “The Black Woman: National and International Perspectives.”

[3] Paul Edwards, The Early African Presence in the British Isles, 1990, 2-3. Additional brief discussions: Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2017); Bernadette Andrea, “The ‘Presences of Women’ from the Islamic World in Sixteenth- to Early Seventeenth-Century British Literature and Culture,” in Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces in the Early Modern World ed. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Routledge, 2016), 296-7. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995) is essential, important, and a necessary cite, but doesn’t treat the Dunbar in much detail. Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) considers a great many texts, but barely touches on the Dunbar at all.

A little on Thomas of Monmouth and Intersectionality

I had the honor today of being on a panel called “ A Conversation about Intersectionality on National Coming Day.” Each of us was asked to present for 5-7 minutes. Others talked generously and well about students; I focused on what I know best, analyzing medieval literature. I didn’t have time to do much more than sketch some ideas, but if you’d like to see them, they’re below, and maybe they’ll help with your teaching.

I teach mostly medieval literature, and what I’m going to offer today is what an attention to intersectionality brings to literary and historical interpretation, as a model, I hope, to some of the ways those of us in the humanities might teach.

Recently, I’ve been teaching Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of William of Norwich. “Passion” here means suffering and death, like the “Passion” of the Christ, for Thomas’s work is a twelfth-century account of the torture and murder and eventual sainthood of a boy, apprenticed as a tanner. None of this is unusual fare for medieval writing, except for one thing, which is the reason I’m teaching it to undergraduates in my History and Literature Course: it’s the earliest recorded version of the “ritual murder” legend.

If you’re fortunate enough not to know what the legend is, let me explain: it’s said that every Passover, Jews kidnap, torture, and murder a Christian boy, in scorn of Jesus’s crucifixion. The alleged ritual is, of course, a nightmare version of the Roman Catholic Mass, which is itself a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, conducted with what Catholics hold to be Christ’s real flesh. The ritual murder legend is a clear case of projection and inversion, in other words, a common psychological mechanism in which a dominant group blames some minority or disempowered group for everything about its own claimed identity that it finds uncomfortable or worrying. Someone has to be blamed, given the anxiety over the ritual cannibalism at the heart of the Mass.

Now, the Jews were accused of randomly selecting a city every year to hold their ritual; they did it only once a year, and that year, the year Thomas writes about, it happened in Norwich. In centering the ritual in his own community – for Thomas was a Benedictine monk at Norwich cathedral — Thomas aimed to inspire a new cult for a new saint, drawing pilgrims to his workplace. He failed in that goal, likely because Thomas Beckett was far more spectacularly killed not long after Thomas of Monmouth himself died, and no English saint would have ever been able to compete with the popularity of an Archbishop of Canterbury murdered on, sort of, a king’s orders. What Thomas inadvertently succeeded in doing, however, was promulgating an antisemitic legend that continues to be told to the present day, and whose effects for the Jews of Northern Europe would be quite literally murderous.

I’ve been surprised by student reactions when I’ve taught material like this. After I gave a capsule history of medieval anti-Semitism some years ago, and I asked students what questions they had, one asked, “why are Jews so whiny.” As I was being observed that day for a teaching award, I had to pause a little longer than usual before I found a suitably diplomatic way to push back. More recently, while teaching Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ — not a ritual murder story, not exactly, but similarly anti-Semitic — one student interrupted to castigate the tale’s wicked Jews, because she was so horrified by what she imagined might happen to her own son. I responded by observing how antisemitism can weaponize the feelings that are dearest to us, in this case, her own mother love.

But none of that analysis is strictly speaking intersectional. In my remaining time, I’m going to sketch out how an attention to intersectionality can help us notice things about what we teach that might otherwise pass without notice. An intersectional analysis, of course, requires attention to how differing positions of structural difference interrelate. Not all these categories will necessarily be subordinated or minority categories; some categories contradict each other; others amplify each other’s effects, sometimes to weird or surprising effects. Kimberlé William Crenshaw’s foundational article “Mapping the Margins,” to cite the key example, observed that in Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings, we had, on the one hand, feminist anti-rape activism running up against cynically deployed anti-racist anti-lynching activism.

The antisemitism of Thomas of Monmouth’s text draws some of its force from intersecting relations of oppression. Notably, almost none of text’s Jews are women, and none of them are children. The murder victim, William, is a child– a boy, of course, but still not sexed in the same way an adult is – and the boy’s father basically drops out of the narrative in favor of William’s mother, who gets several big grieving scenes.

My students tend to believe, not unfairly, that the Middle Ages was a period that was bad for women; their mistake is to take this period as uniquely bad. That said, the fact of the murderers being men, and the victim and his family being a child and mother, means that we have to attend to the way that the text’s Jews being members of the dominant gender makes them suitable victims. The very oppressed status of women, and, to an extent, children makes them the object of paternalistic protection; and the dominant gender status of Jews means that they be targeted without activating any of the paternalistic defenses that would call for the protection of women. What we have here, in a sense, is a version of Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase about colonialism and neo-colonialist military adventures, “white men saving brown women from brown men,” and what I’ve tried to hint at, in this brief talk, is how attention to intersecting categories of dominance and oppression helps us to better understand, and to teach, our materials.

Thank you.

Fall 2018 – MA Canterbury Tales


Everything else is basically the same text as the Undergrad version. We’ll just be doing things faster and with more sophistication.

Date Reading/Assignments
T 8/28 Introduction to Middle English
T 9/4 General Prologue and Physician
[sign up for presentations]
Translation “exam” due
T 9/25 Knight
First Paper Due
T 10/2 Miller, Reeve, and Cook
T 10/9 Man of Law
T 10/16 Wife of Bath Prologue
T 10/23 Wife of Bath, Tale
T 10/30 Telling Tales
T 11/6 Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo, The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey O!
First day second paper can be submitted
T 11/13 Clerk
T 11/20 Franklin
T 11/27 Prioress / Thopas
[Last day of presentations]
T 12/4 Nun’s Priest and Manciple, and Retractation
Last day second paper can be submitted
Questionnaire Due
T 12/11 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph/ Annotated Bibliography Due
T 12/18 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers


Fall 2018 Courses – Undergrad Canterbury Tales

English 3112: Chaucer
Fall 2018, MW 12:50-2:05, Boylan 3408
Professor Karl Steel
Contact Information: ksteel AT brooklyn.cuny.edu | twitter @karlsteel
Office: Boylan 2157      Office Hours: MW 11:30-12:30, 2:15-3:15 MW, 5:15-6:15 Tues

“Diverse folk diversely they seyde
But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.” (I.3857-3858)

We will read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a sprawling, unfinished masterpiece of fourteenth-century literature, which might be understood as compendium of most medieval genres: history, saints’ lives, dirty stories, and philosophy. You will learn to read Chaucer’s Middle English and to put digitized medieval manuscripts to use. We will also read Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, a modern adaptation and response to Chaucer’s work.

Objectives: Students will develop skills in

  • Expressing ideas clearly in writing, including skills in grammar, organization, and revision
  • Understanding and analyzing literary writing, including the understanding of literature in its interdisciplinary contexts and the conventions of literary argumentation
  • Using theory and criticism to complicate and enrich their understanding of cultural materials
  • Using an academic library to find scholarly sources
  • Speaking effectively about cultural objects, including literature
  • Reading Middle English

Required Texts [link to buy books]

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: Seventeen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson (Norton, 2018), ISBN: 9781324000563

Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (Canongate Book, 2015)

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, ed. Candace Barrington, Brantley L. Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman, https://opencanterburytales.dsl.lsu.edu/

The Canterbury Tales edition above is absolutely required. You might also get a modern English translation: I can’t recommend one, but they’re easy to find. We will be reading it in Chaucer’s Middle English.

Date Reading/Assignments
M 8/27 Introduction to Middle English
W 8/29 Reading: General Prologue: 410-44; Physician’s Tale 1-317
W 9/5 General Prologue: Finish It [sign up for presentations]
W 9/12 Knight’s Tale Part 1
First Paper Due
M 9/17 Knight’s Tale Part 2
First Day of Presentations
M 9/24 Knight’s Tale Part 3
W 9/26 Knight’s Tale Part 4
M 10/1 Miller’s Prologue and Tale
W 10/3 Reeve and Cook, Prologues and Tales
W 10/10 Man of Law, Prologue and First Half of Tale
M 10/15 Man of Law, Finish It
W 10/17 Wife of Bath, Prologue
M 10/22 Wife of Bath, Tale
W 10/24 Wife of Bath, Further Discussion
M 10/29 Telling Tales – first half
W 10/31 Telling Tales – finish it
M 11/5 Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo, The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey O!
First day second paper can be submitted
W 11/7 Clerk’s Prologue, First Third of Tale
M 11/12 Clerk’s Tale, Second Third
W 11/14 Clerk’s Tale, finish it
M 11/19 Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
W 11/21 Prioress / Thopas
Last Day of Presentations
M 11/26 Nun’s Priest
Last day second paper can be submitted
W 11/28 Summoner’s Tale and Friar’s Tale
M 12/3 Manciple’s Tale and Retractation
Questionnaire Due
W 12/5 Course Review 1
M 12/10 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph / Annotated Bibliography Due
W 12/12 Course Review 2 / Review for Final
W 12/19 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers

Attendance is required. You are allowed 3 absences for whatever reason without penalty. Your grade will be penalized one grade step (eg, from a B+ to a B) for every absence after the third. Be on time!

You are expected to have done all the Reading and to be prepared to talk about it. Bring the day’s reading to class.

For a good Participation grade, be respectful of and – especially! – be engaged in the class discussion. Phones and computers can be used only to take notes or to look something up for class.

Note regarding Student Disability Services:

I am committed to providing accommodations for students with disabilities. If you are disabled or suspect you may have a disability, the Director of the Center for Student Disability Services, contact Valerie Stewart-Lovell (718-951-5538, vstewart@brooklyn.cuny.edu, 138 Roosevelt Hall Building) to have your disability documented, as this will ensure you receive the accommodation that it is your right to receive. Do not hesitate to appeal to Stewart-Lovell’s office if you are not receiving accommodations for a documented disability.


Participation: 5%
Weekly Blackboard writing: 15%
Presentation+ Presentation Paper: 15%
Short Writing Assignments: 20%
Questionnaire: 5%
Sample Paragraph/Annotated Bibliography: 5%
Final Paper: 25%
Final: 10%




Fall 2018 Courses – English 4113, Introduction to History and Literature

English 4113: Introduction to History and Literature
Fall 2018, MW 3:40-4:55, Boylan 4315
Professor Karl Steel
Contact Information: ksteel AT brooklyn.cuny.edu | twitter @karlsteel
Office: Boylan 2157      Office Hours: MW 11:30-12:30, 2:15-3:15 MW, 5:15-6:15 Tues

Introduction to History and Literature will study questions of “national belonging,” the uses of history, and, in particular, racialization from the Middle Ages to the present, using literary examples in conjunction with nonliterary archives to introduce students to “the concept of interdisciplinarity and to fundamental methods of analyzing history and literature.” We will begin with the Middle Ages, studying first an early instance of colonialism, and then the origin of an antisemitic legend; then we will examine the law and protest literature surrounding the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, before concluding with Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved, and a late nineteenth-century memoir on legal remedies for oppression, Lucy Delaney’s Out of the Darkness Cometh the Light.

Objectives: Students will develop skills in

  • Expressing ideas clearly in writing, including skills in grammar, organization, and revision
  • Understanding and analyzing literary writing, including the understanding of literature in its interdisciplinary contexts and the conventions of literary argumentation
  • Using theory and criticism to complicate and enrich their understanding of cultural materials
  • Using an academic library to find scholarly sources
  • Speaking effectively about cultural objects, including literature

Required Texts
[link to buy books]
Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O’Meara (New York: Penguin, 1983), ISBN 0140444238
Thomas of Monmouth, Life and Passion of William of Norwich, trans. Miri Rubin (New York: Penguin, 2015), ISBN
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2003), ISBN 0142437166
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987 [Vintage Reprint 2004) ISBN 1400033411

Course Pack

Date Reading/Assignments
M 8/27 Introduction – the Myth of Europe and the problem of National Belonging
W 8/29 Online : William Harrison, “Of the general constitution of the bodies of the Britons” [Volume 1, Chapter 20, 1587 version, online at The Holinshed Project]; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Race,” in English Traits, 349-65
W 9/5 Coursepack – Joseph Rouse, “Power/Knowledge,” from the Cambridge Companion to Foucault (read this first to help you understand)
Paper 1 Due
W 9/12 Gerald of Wales, Part 1
Presentations Begin
M 9/17 Gerald of Wales, Part 2
M 9/24 Gerald of Wales, Part 3
W 9/26 Coursepack: Linda E Mitchell “Gender(ed) Identities? Anglo-Norman Settlement, Irish-ness, and the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1367”
M 10/1 Thomas of Monmouth 1 + Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale [find online]
W 10/3 Thomas of Monmouth 2 + Richard of Devizes, Chronicle, pages 59-64
W 10/10 Thomas of Monmouth 3
M 10/15 Thomas of Monmouth 4 + Coursepack: Meir of Norwich
W 10/17 Course Review – Coursepack: Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice”
M 10/22 Coursepack – William Dunbar poem; historical materials; Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, VI.x-xi – DISCUSSION: Misogynoir + Colorism
W 10/24 Coursepack – Barbados Laws 1654, and Mark A. Peterson ‘The Selling of Joseph: Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689-1733’
M 10/29 Online reading: Declaration of the Rights of Man; Edward Rushton letter to George Washington; Dessalines letter to Jefferson; 1805 Haitian Constitution; “Race and the Haitian Constitution
W 10/31 Coursepack: Two Essays from European Romantic Review: Manu Samiriti Chander and Patricia A. Matthew, “Abolitionist Interruptions: Romanticism, Slavery, and Genre,” and Rebecca Schneider, ““He says he is free”: Narrative Fragments and Self-Emancipation in West Indian Runaway Advertisements”
M 11/5 Equiano, Interesting Narrative – Coursepack: excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon
W 11/7 Equiano, Interesting Narrative
M 11/12 Equiano, Interesting Narrative
W 11/14 Coursepack: Margaret Garner Readings
M 11/19 Beloved
W 11/21 Beloved
M 11/26 Beloved – Coursepack, Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”
W 11/28 Beloved
Paper 2 Due by Now
M 12/3 Coursepack: Lucy Delaney, Out of the Darkness, and Eric Gardner “‘You Have No Business to Whip Me’: The Freedom Suits of Polly Walsh and Lucy Ann Delaney”
Last Day of Presentations
W 12/5 Questionnaire Due
M 12/10 Final Paper Writing Workshop
Sample Paragraph / Annotated Bibliography Due
W 12/12 Course Review / Final Paper Writing Workshop 2
W 12/19 Final Paper Due – Expanded and thorough revision of one of earlier papers

Attendance is required. You are allowed 3 absences for whatever reason without penalty. Your grade will be penalized one grade step (eg, from a B+ to a B) for every absence after the third. Be on time!

You are expected to have done all the Reading and to be prepared to talk about it. Bring the day’s reading to class.

For a good Participation grade, be respectful of and – especially! – be engaged in the class discussion. Phones and computers can be used only to take notes or to look something up for class.

Note regarding Student Disability Services:

I am committed to providing accommodations for students with disabilities. If you are disabled or suspect you may have a disability, the Director of the Center for Student Disability Services, contact Valerie Stewart-Lovell (718-951-5538, vstewart@brooklyn.cuny.edu, 138 Roosevelt Hall Building) to have your disability documented, as this will ensure you receive the accommodation that it is your right to receive. Do not hesitate to appeal to Stewart-Lovell’s office if you are not receiving accommodations for a documented disability.


Participation: 5%
Weekly Blackboard writing: 15%
Presentation+ Presentation Paper: 15%
Short Writing Assignments: 20%
Questionnaire: 5%
Sample Paragraph/Annotated Bibliography: 5%
Final Paper: 25%
Final Exam: 10%



Institutional Power, Sexual Harassment, and the Physician’s Tale

Hi gang,

What follows was my contribution to the 2018 Kalamazoo Medieval Congress’s session on “Mood,” organized by Dan Remein and Arthur Russell (185 in the program). Discussions of institutional power and the star system in academia in the wake of the Avital Ronell case make me feel that it’s a good time to share this piece for a wider public.

First, a content note: I’m concentrating on the Physician’s Tale, which is one of Chaucer’s many tales about rape. It may seem at times as if I’m about to let the attempted rapist off the hook: I won’t. I also want to acknowledge my admiration for Carissa Harris’s public scholarship, in Vox and elsewhere, which is a model for all of us for thinking with medieval cultures to combat rape culture in the #metoo era. So:

We all know that the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales begins with the season and the weather that draws life from the earth, keeps birds awake for love, and sets pilgrims voyaging. Springtime is general, for all that lives; it catches us up too: so priketh hem nature in hir corages.

Springtime Christians don’t decide, not quite, to go on pilgrimage; they find themselves stirred up — by gratitude to the holy blissful martyr, by April’s suitability for travel, and also by the stirrings the season awakes in their hearts. As I routinely tell my students, that’s a lovely ecological observation. Ecocriticism habitually dislodges human supremacy by recognizing unintentional forms of agency, often nonhuman, operating as a network, a mesh, a mangle, chose your metaphor, irreducible to firmly defined subjects and objects. We can be happy with how well Chaucer responds to Jane Bennett’s model of an “agentic assemblage,” in which, to quote Bennett, the “efficacy or effectivity to which [the term agency] has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts.” Bennett’s example is the American Power Grid failure of 2003, and Chaucer’s, we might say, is springtime stirrings, for springtime Christian are agents, but they also the objects of other agencies.

Human agency may be rational, but only to a degree; it does what it does amid a host of other encouragements, guiding us according to the determinations that the weather and other systems deal us. But the redistribution of agency can get us into trouble if we start to look at more unpleasant effects. What happens to our ecological pieties when we examine a moment of distributed agency that we’d likely prefer to center on one, very bad man?

This is the judge, Apius, of the Canterbury tale generally ascribed to the Physician. The story ultimately comes from Livy, although Chaucer’s direct source was the Roman de la Rose. It concerns a girl, Virginia, her father, Virginius, and the judge, who decides to expose Virginia to his lust by falsely having her declared an escaped slave; Virginius solves the problem by killing his daughter. Livy’s original is a highly dramatic story about a suitable match shattered by an old man’s cruelty, as well as, crucially, a story of political resistance; Chaucer’s story is primarily about the fatal allures of beauty, or the equally fatal compulsions of masculinity and paternal authority, tied up with an unsettling final warning about one’s secret sin always finding one out.

But even though Chaucer probably had not read the Livy, he shares something with Livy that the Roman de la Rose omits, namely, the strangely impersonal motivation that leads Judge Apius into corruption. For Livy, he is “stuprandae libido cepit,” that is, the desire to defile her seizes him; and, later, he is “amore amens,” driven mad by love. And for Chaucer, as soon as Apius beholds Virginia wending her way to the temple with her mother, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood / so was he caught with beautee of this mayde.” The second line’s “caught” uncannily echoes Livy’s cepit; the first line gives us “mood,” the sessions’ theme. I’ll talk about that word in a bit. For now, let me just point out that we find similar descriptions of motive in Boccaccio’s Virginia story in his De mulieribus claris, where his Apius “ab eo amaretur perdite,” “falls desperately,” or even ruinously, “in love with her” — note the passive verb, amaretur — and in Gower’s Confessio amantis, where Apius is subject to “The blinde lustes of his wille” (7.5147). Lust—blind and mad—makes them do things that make no sense, perhaps not even to lust itself.

We can contrast these impersonal accounts of desire with Chaucer’s other rapists, attempted and otherwise. While Chaucer gives us access neither to the mental state of the Wife of Bath’s knight nor to the thief on Constance’s boat in the Man of Law’s Tale, we do witness the deliberations of the Reeve’s calculating clerks, and those of Tereus too, in the Legend of Good Women, who “caste his fyry herte upon” Philomena, and then acts, quite by his own volition. But Apius is his mood’s object, in the standard reading–again, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood”–and especially in one striking variant of the line, present, probably inter alia, in Trinity College R.3.15 and Caxton’s 1476 printing: “anon his hert chaunged alle his mode.”

I’m reminded of Palamon’s “A,” his cry as he spies Emelye through his prison bars, a human voice that gives sound to his desire’s irresistible force; or the “O mercy, God” of Troilus when he first spots Criseyde. These are the sounds not of a decision, but of something having been decided. The key element, for all of these, is that of being captured, driven mad, irredeemably altered, of one’s faculties fleeing, as the self affixes itself to what it sees in another.

The off-kilter agency of this scene demands that we approach it with something like an “agentic assemblage” in mind, because it’s not so easy to put the blame exclusively on Apius. That is, I’m suggesting that we worry about his consent too. I recognize that this is an appalling suggestion, so I’m just asking you to hold on with me for a bit. “Mood” is a good word for thinking of an other-than-rational agency, although it’s somewhat less good for this in Middle than it is in Modern English. Middle English did not yet have a meaning that, according to the OED, first appeared in 1902, that is, “The pervading atmosphere or tone of a particular place, event, or period.” Per the Brothers Grimm, the German stimmung, translated into the “mood” so well-known to Heideggarians, originates in a term for musical tone or tuning, and is first applied to human comportment only in the 1770s. And humeur, the French analogue to the modern English “mood” and German stimmung, has a strictly medical meaning in the Middle Ages, as it does in Chaucer’s works.

That said, by Chaucer’s day, the English “mood” had generally stopped referencing the “rational mind” or “spiritual self”—its primary meanings in Old English—and had instead come to mean “the emotional mind”: this I draw from Ágnes Kiricsi’s research. In the later fourteenth century, mood is a feeling; it isn’t deliberative. Much too is suggested by the Middle English “moody,” whose meanings encompass states of being like bravery and nobility, but also more negative states like arrogance, stubbornness, and lasciviousness. Then as now, to be moody can mean to be stuck in an unpleasant relation to things — to recall the German, to be somewhat poorly tuned. Mood can also mean a character or a disposition, in fact not unlike the French humeur. It’s not quite clear what changes when Apius’s mood changes, but the key thing is that what changed didn’t happen through deliberation. He has become an object to himself.

Christine Rose’s “Reading Chaucer Reading Rape” observes that “multiple agents are involved in raping Virginia in this tale”: to her human agents, I would add the inhuman force of Virginia’s beauty and virtue, which surely, in the cruel, misogynist logics of chastity discourse, may be the chief cause of her misfortune (here and here), and Apius’s too. Virginia’s deobjectifying mental interiority, when we finally glimpse it, is a resistance to tale’s logic of beauty – you’ll recall that she talks back to her father, one of Chaucer’s unique additions to the tale.  Apius’s interiority, however, is a kind of unthought assent to her beauty and tale both. In some sense, Harry Bailly may be right when he exclaims “Hire beautee was hire deth, I far wel sayn,” for, faced with such a powerful actant, what else could Apius do?

A horrifying suggestion, I know, one to which we have to respond by finding Apius guilty. But we have to do more. Distributed agency does not dispel responsibility; but it does make certainty much more difficult and only ever partial. Joanna Zerlinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a good model for how to do this: she recognizes that on a sufficiently long or brief scale — whether that of the universe itself, or the subatomic — human agency may seem not to matter. But in our little space of responsibility, we still have to take care. A little power is still power. And Apius, moved as he is, still has it.

Furthermore, a distributed model of agency also gives us better tools for fending off future dangers from the likes of Apius. The tale may suggest that a posthuman framework like that offered by Jane Bennett’s accounts of agency may be an effective analytical tool for fighting rape culture. Apius is guilty; but not only Apius is guilty, and the tale’s “surplus” guilt can’t be located in only individual human subjects. We can condemn Apius through more traditionally human frameworks of course: in 1981, Sheila Delany argued that Chaucer missed the real political force of Livy’s original condemnation of judicial tyranny, while Dan Kline has often read the tale as a critique of the murderous logics of the patriarchal family (here and here). But we can also ask what kind of power beauty has.  what kind of power desire. Do we need something more than a critique of rational, human actors to account for what Apius did?

We can go further with a posthuman engagement of the power of mood. Thus I can tentatively suggest, by way of conclusion, that what must be done with Apii is first to anticipate what moods a given social system will deliver to them, and then to disarm these moods in advance by destroying everything that gives them such power over women. In a larger sense, I’m trying to rescue the ecological and posthuman accounts of distributed agency by testing them against a limit case, and trying to imagine what grounds remain for justice in the face of very bad actors whose agency, like anyone’s, are not entirely their own. Psychoanalysis may be one way in; affect theory another; while today, for my purposes, in a very preliminary way, I’m wondering about ecocriticism and the new materialisms.

Thank you.