Mothers (and Giants) to Think Back Through

2343765663_62c5889efc_bMaybe you know what to do with the Arthurian opening of the Wife of Bath’s tale. I don’t, not quite, but then again, I’ve only just started my path towards planting my flag on some portion of Chauceriana. I found one answer in Patricia Clare Ingham’s “Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.1 (2002) 34-46, but I’m sorry to say I found it more interesting than convincing. I’m sure the fault is my own. Ingham argues on behalf of the pastoral against its critics, who condemn it for its occlusions of material realities. In her hands, the pastoral and other utopian fantasies of the time before the proliferation of “halles, chambres, kichenes, boures / citees, burghes, castels, hye toures / Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes” (3.869-71) become a site of fantasy for the conquered and therefore a way to read past the conquering, dominant culture to otherwise lost voices. However, although a British Arthur is always a Welsh hero, although there’s Celtic myth and memory in the loathly lady, the sovereignty hag, or whatever you want to call her, and although “Britons” (3.858) could be Welsh, I just can’t hear the Welsh in the Wife’s Tale. Maybe I don’t have my ear pressed hard enough to the ground.

What I do sense are incubi, now exorcised by the friars, and the elf-queen, all of whom, inspired by Ingham, I read as a site of fantasy. As much as we love Gowther’s father, his fourteenth-century fame barely rates in comparison to the cultural dominance of the incubi of the Albina legend. In a story that was translated from Insular French into Middle English, Latin, and Welsh–and what follows is a summary of one version–a Greek princess and her twenty-nine sisters plot to murder kings whom their father, a more powerful king, wants them to marry. Betrayed by the youngest sister, the remaining sisters are sent into exile on a rudderless boat, which drifts to an island christened Albion, after the oldest sister, Albina. After living for a time on a vegetarian diet, the sisters rejuvenate themselves with wild game and grow lustful. Their lust attracts incubi, by whom the sisters engender gigantic children. The children then breed with their mothers, and everyone continues interbreeding. Thus the island fills up with giants, who fight with each other so viciously that by the time Brutus arrives, 270 years later, only 24 giants remain, including a giant named Gogmagog who tells Brutus their history.

For a tale dominated by Guinevere, the voices of wives, widows, and maidens, and by an magical crone, I want Albina and her sisters to be its first gynocentric model of rule. It’s a stretch, but I also want Albina and her sisters to be the “ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo” (3.992) that the rapist sees fleetingly “under a forest syde.” I want Albina and her children to be an alternate genealogy for the Wife, one that’s traced backed to a founding mother. After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage (think here of the women in the prologue, so many of whom–okay, two–are named Alys); nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.

In essence, I want to trapdoor Ingham; but mainly I want to watch the Wife trapdoor everyone else. I want to read the first line of the tale, “In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour” (3.858) not as “In the old days, the time of King Arthur” but as “In the days Arthur would have considered old,” the time when in fact “this land fulfild of fairye” (3.859). After all, so far as I know (folklorists? Arthurian specialists?), in Arthur’s time the land was mainly full of knights, who sometimes encountered a scattered a fairy or two like Gromer Somer Joure or a faux fairy like Bertilak; for throngs of fairies, we need to go back to Albina’s day. Following Ingham, we might be able to recover Welsh resistance in this monstrous origin; but I think we can follow this back still further, to the Wife’s own desires. What that would get us I don’t know yet (please don’t say the presymbolic Maternal!).

Hell, I don’t know if I’m just recapitulating something that’s been said 100 times already.

But, correcting for the nobility, I can’t help but hear the Wife in this:

My fair sustres, ful weel ȝe knowiþ þat þe kyng oure fadir, vs hath reprouyd, schamed & dispised, for encheson to make vs obedient vn-to oure housbandes; but certes þat schal y neuere, whiles þat I lyve, seth þat I am come of a more hyere kynges blod þan my housband is.

And I’m not even sure I have to correct for the high kindred of Albina, since, after all, the Wife is so puffed up that “in all the parisshe wife ne was ther noon / that to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; / and if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she / that she was out of alle charitee” (1.449-52). And, if I can sense Albina in the tale’s own prologue, maybe I can account for an episode that–maybe–doesn’t get the respect it deserves. What the next step would be, I don’t know yet.
(conversations continue below, and much excellence to read that merits more conversation: the Carnivalesque; Publishing and Our Discontents; the Frenchness of English Jews; Mary Kate on monsters and resistances to knowledge; and, of course, Eileen’s mother of a post and its gigantic thread, “On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities”: all great stuff)

(image scanned from the delightful English Popular Art of Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx.


Limiters = Friars. She’s digging at Hubert with that line, but also echoing a standard anti-fraternal critique of the friars as a horde (see the excellent Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton UP, 1986, but also see Deleuze and Guattari on the horror of the Horde in Thousand Plateaus). Might even push at friars in their missionary aspect here, which is, of course, a kind of precolonial aspect (the avant garde). If my hunches hold, this is how they’re used in Southern France against the ‘Cathars,’ how they’re used, vainly, in the Fraternal travels to the East. I want to imagine a real difference in terms of models of taking land between the friars (the new model) and the (12th-century) monks (the ‘old’ model), but I don’t know where to take this…

But, Tom, you might also wonder: what about Arthur’s kids? And where are children, more generally, in the Cant Tales? What happens to them? Paging Dan Kline…they’re murdered, sacrificed, raped, and, yes, a few turn out well, but overall, I think of the CT’s children as nodes of pathos.


I remember reading only two pieces on the loathly lady. Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37.4 (2003): 329-45….and if my memory of my readings in Loomis holds, this does seem a bit…Loomis-y. E.g., Carter discovers the Triple Moon goddess in the wyf, maide, and widow at the court when the rapist returns. Other parts of the article are much, much better than this. Also Manuel Aguirre, “The Riddle of Sovereignty,” The Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 273-282. According to my notes, nothing about Wales or the Britons in either one.

PCI, who’s been forced to blog!, given your current projects, you’ve no doubt read/encountered Lynn Arner, “The Ends of Enchantment: Colonialism and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48.2 (2006) 79-101? Again, if my notes haven’t betrayed me, Arner thinks you over-emphasize hybridity in Anglo-Welsh relations and lose the coercive aspect of hybridization…but this isn’t how I remember, for example, Sovereign Fantasies (which I used for an inhuman Avowyng reading) (and I think Arner mis-steps by arguing for the barbarity of Bertilak’s castle, when it would have been much easier, and possibly more interesting, to work with it as a utopian fantasy at the heart of the colonial wilderness, as if travelers to Shangri-La had discovered, not some Orientalized dreamworld, but instead a cleaned-up version of London).


Not that you need my approval, but I love the new project. I can’t think offhand of any treatments of the important Newfangledness topos (except perhaps as a negative image of Dean’s World Grown Old), and certainly nothing, then, that treats it as a site of ambivalence, of desire, or even, if you want to go there, the objet petit a. But given that you’re pushing enchantment, probably don’t want to do that!

do more with what seems to me similarity between the effacement of the Welsh as colonized subject (taken seriously rather than critiqued for their ‘complicity’ with English colonization–when I was first working on this material, the conventional wisdom about Welsh as colonized was that they weren’t really a “unified” group, but rather folk with particular loyalty to their locality)and the effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the ‘loathly lady’ as a “celtic” motif.

This sounds fascinating, and I hope it finds a home someday. Perhaps my problem was looking to the article to fill in some gaps in my Wife of Bath knowledge (as I transform myself into a Chaucerian, at least for this semester). If I wanted, however, to turn on the Carter and Aguirre, above, and no doubt others (thinking of the notes in the TEAMS Gawain volume), to have the Wife of Bath be only one piece of a larger critique of the effacement of the Welsh, your approach sounds very, very useful.

I find the Albion material fascinating, but more far removed from traditions of sovereignty, although now that you mention it, I can’t quite recall why I think that

Yeah, hmmm….I tend to think of the Albion material as a (and I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere above) place to think through, encounter, fall into, be swallowed up by (choose your metaphor) problems and fascinations of sovereignty. Sort of like the hag, but not as easily relegated to some chthonic/sylvan Other, and perhaps with a more complex relationship to eros. – See more at: