Weeping with Erkenwald, or, Complicit with Grace

During Steven Kruger’s plenary at SEMA, I got to thinking about the dynamic of supersessionarity in St. Erkenwald. I’m sure K. Biddick has handled this somewhere, or probably any number of Erkenwald‘s many critics, so apologies in advance, and also apologies for not having a copy in the house of the poem in Middle English.

If you don’t remember Erkenwald offhand, here’s the plot, cribbed from the very first paper I wrote at Columbia, back in 1999:

A group of masons discover a tomb while renovating St. Paul’s. In the tomb is an incorrupt body dressed as a king. Efforts to determine the identity of this supposed king prove unsuccessful, so the Bishop of London, Erkenwald, is summoned back from a visitation. After mass and prayer, the corpse speaks, revealing itself as the most righteous of judges under the pre-Roman kings “Sir Belyn [and] Ser Berynge . . . his brothire” (l. 213). Despite his righteousness, the soul of the nameless judge is still in Hell. Erkenwald prays for the soul, weeps in compassion, and the formula of baptism and a single tear baptizes the judge. The judge’s soul ascends to heaven, his body disappears into dust, and Erkenwald and the community of London are united in praise of the inscrutable mercy of God.

The poem begins “Not long after / Christ suffered on the cross and sanctified Christendom, / The city had a saintly and sanctified bishop; / And it happened that Erkenwald was the holy man’s name.” It then turns to Augustine’s conversion of the Insular pagans, when in London

” at that time the temple most eminent
Was partly pulled down and purified by dedication,
Having been heathen in the days of Hengist”

Apollo’s temple becomes St. Peter’s church, Mahomet’s St. Margaret’s, Jupiter and Juno become Jesus or James, and the “Þe synagoge of þe Sonne was sett to oure Lady.” The note to my sad Penguin edition explains “‘Synagogue’ in Middle English was used to describe any heathen temple. Probably the identifications in this stanza were determined by alliterative needs.” (17 n5), a point supported, just barely, by the MED.

But in that synagogue, converted to a church of “oure Lady,” I can’t help think of St. Mary’s in Jewry, which Robert Stacey (“The Conversion of Jews in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 67 (1992), 265) tells me was a converted synagogue (anyone have pictures? Know if it’s still around? Know what happened to it?).

And, driven by that thought, I wonder at the very opening of the poem: I know Middle English poetry is not notable for its historical precision, but the historical Erkenwald was bishop some 700 years after the purported death of Christ. But if he’s set “not long after” the death of Christ, Erkenwald very closely follows the cruxifixion and resurrection and thus the supersession of Judaism by Christianity. Why not understand London’s converted heathen architecture as the converted Jewish architecture of post-Expulsion England (something to think through for your stone project, Jeffrey?)? Why not take “synagoge” literally instead of as a cheap metrical filler (after all, another word might have done the trick just as well, or as poorly). Why not imagine that the builders discover in the foundation the foundation of their faith, the Jewish bedrock that literally held up several London structures? Why not hear in the noise of the bells that end the poem a triumphant counter to the enforced silence of London Jewry in the 13th century, who were first told they had to worship quietly before being expelled altogether a few decades later? Why not hear in the “New Werke” the New Work of Grace? I realize the poem probably dates to the 1390s, which is rather late for all this, but, otherwise, why not?

All this is by way of setting up the question I asked Kruger after his talk: “Why a judge?” The story’s normally about Trajan, an emperor, so why make the change? Why a judge rather than a king? I remember suggesting (which is not to say I actually suggested anything of the sort at that moment!), clearly this is a supersessionary narrative about the passing away of the Law, represented by the good judge, in the time of grace, represented by Erkenwald’s weeping affect. The potency of his tears utterly dissolves the Law, pagan, or Jewish (which, barring the Natural Law that predated the Mosaic Law, is virtually coterminous with “the Law”), or even the Christian Law that left the righteous judge languishing in Hell (note, I prefer to aim at a reading of utter dissolution of any Law to what I recall as the standard approach to the crux of the judge’s salvation, viz., to snap the miracle back into some clear doctrine and so to give it back to a law while taking away the truly miraculous).

This reading of the poem as a supersessionary allegory leads me to my final question: our philosophical interests at ITM tend towards affect and affirmation; we tend towards refusing the “said” or “being” in favor of the “saying” or “becoming”; we tend to find the rigorous application of any one critical model, particularly models of the Law (stereotypically psychoanalysis), interesting at best, but often enervating. We find ourselves on the side of the miraculous, l’avenir, on the side of surprise. And if not “we,” then certainly “I.” If I had to place myself anywhere in St. Erkenwald, I would find myself in Erkenwald himself, surprised by the efficacy of my own tears, unsure what to do other than praise the moment and what it wrought. I would linger in the liquefaction of the Judge, of the bodily contact between the Bishop and the Corpse in this in-between zone of fluids. But given how I have read the poem, to what degree am I conditioned by or complicit in ongoing supersessionary narratives? In whose camp do I fall when I refuse the Law?


Not sure yet about the Bravo for standing with St. E. I’m deciding, at least for today, to be suspicious about the aligning of affect with grace, and the foundations of the preference for affect over the Law.

I suppose this move, now that I think of it, is inspired by Kruger’s stirring final paragraphs in his SEMA plenary, his suspicions, if I recall them correctly, about our love for change, instability, slippage, and the link. Again, iirc, Kruger observed that destabilization as one means by which dominant structures establish themselves as dominant, so asking that we rethink destabilization with apostate 13th-c. Jews in mind (this is akin to a point I make in my [ick] Exemplaria article, “Category disruption is often presented as liberative, but it also provides opportunities for dominant groups to reassure themselves of their own power” or even Holsinger’s “it’s worth pointing out the extent to which neomedievalism’s idiom of porous borders, overlapping authorities, conflicting jurisdiction, and so on can often be hard to distinguish from the postmodern-postcolonial patois those of us in literary studies have been speaking to one another over the last twenty years” (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror 82-83)).

further comments

Jeffrey asks

What’s wrong with temporary and strategic and affective arrests like this one?

If Erkenwald the poem were engaged only in a temporary, strategic, and affective arrest with the dead judge, then that would be fine. However, the dissolution of the Law occurs in a ritual that cements civic with religious power (as the historically oriented criticism as Nic remembers it establishes: e.g., if I remember it correctly, Ruth Nissé, “A Coroun Ful Riche: the Rule of History in St. Erkenwald.” English Literary History 65 (1998), 277-95.) In joining ourselves affectively with Erkenwald, or with the community, we join together to help the (as I argue, at least implicitly Jewish) Judge supersede the Law. It’s great to destabilize the Law, because what’s the other option? But our preferred reading practices have much in common with Christian anti-Judaism, except–and this is perhaps (paradoxically, natch) our salvation–that our affiliations ARE “temporary and strategic and affective.” In not being oriented towards some final salvation, in not being oriented towards some community that arrives for good through our dissolution of the law, our love remains a worldly love. It does not one circle around the Savior, but is in the here and now, which is not to say, however, that it is a love without spirit (or, to put this another way, inspired by Eileen’s post, it is not a “faceless” love). And now I wonder, both, if I found too simple an out for my conundrum, and whether I should read more Bernard of Clairvaux….

Now, with Rick’s points in mind, we can recall that the civic and religious community formed through supersession occurred in the past. Given the political strife of London in the 1380s and 90s, this community demonstrably did not “take.” Erkenwald, then, may be understood as a nostalgia for a moment when London “worked”; it may be understood as an attempt to recuperate the present and to restart the future by resuscitating history’s deadends (here I’m thinking of course of Benjamin’s Angel of History, surely the guardian angel of our philosophical klatch for the last few years).

To its credit, however, Erkenwald ALSO enacts the abjection through which community forms: as Erkwanwald demonstrates, the coming community will never come without tears [and here, again, I want to stress the Judge as Jewish and not only as a generalized figure of the frustrations of the Law]. We can understand the Judge as the Indivisible Remainder, as the Stain of the Real, as the Not-All, &c. &c. &c. [note that my &c may indicate that I’m cavalierly collapsing concepts that should remain distinct]. The Judge is that which can be brought into the community only by being assimilated and dissolved and thus by ceasing to be in a “destructive ecstacy” that occurs at his expense. After all, Erkenwald is still with us at the end; the Judge has passed on or just joined with Erkenwald is being part of the Civic Spirit. Thus, even in gesturing towards the recreation of or a path towards the Utopia of a pacific London, Erkenwald asserts the impossibility of anything truly pacific. Erkenwald points to the Utopia and declares it impossible. A truly peaceful community, a community formed without abjection, a community in which dissolution in non-violent, is paradigmatically the Utopia, the “nowhere” that Erkenwald refuses to locate in the past or present and thus that Erkenwald refuses to offer to the future.

If this is what Erkenwald is doing, I should say that I’m not (necessarily) in agreement with it. I’m inclined toward hope these days, but–with Eileen–trying to do this ethically.

Another approach, again suggested by Rick’s comment, in combination with Nic, has to do with liturgical time. Erkenwald dramatizes an encounter with a nearly forgotten past. If encountered only as artifacts–the tomb, the corpse–the past cannot be encountered except in its stolid refusal to offer itself to understanding [again, some connections with Jeffrey’s stone project?]. Affect and desire enact the contact that gives us up to the past and the past up to us. That’s one reading.

We also might also see in Erkenwald a mourning of being unable to bring the past into our own time. Affect brings it in, but it then destroys the past, empties the foundations out of mystery, of their “own-ness,” and fills them with the sound of bells in the present day. Time is like a glacier dragging underneath it chunks of the unseen but still present past. But time understood liturgically melts the glacier, clears out the boulders, offers us a time that circles around, offering us the past and present and future denuded of mystery. Understood this way, Erkenwald DESTROYS the past AS past by flooding the foundations of Westminster with another kind of time.

But we still might think–here with Nic on bells “includ[ing] the bodies of its hearers as much as the trees, rocks and streams,” and with Erin Manning on the reaching-towards of communities–of the ceremony, of the bells touching, calling into being a new mode of individuation and time? Much to think about here… – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/10/weeping-with-erkenwald-or-complicit.html#sthash.Ol0hDgGR.dpuf

With all that in mind, again, I wonder, to what extent is our refusal of what JJC calls “the tyranny of a determinative ending” traveling with an old, anti-Jewish heilgeschichte? The answer might be “not at all,” but it still might be worth thinking through.

[Recalling Kruger’s final paragraphs as best I can–I think my laptop ran out of power, so I couldn’t take notes at that point–I also want to wonder whether we should distinguish more clearly between conversion, change, and teleological transition. Certainly the proper path of the heterosexual middle class American male is to ‘convert’ from a single oats sower to a family man, from a ‘seeker of self’ to a company man, from an apartment renter to a homeowner, and so on to death, but these changes are no more destabilizing than, if you will forgive the cliché, the conversion of a caterpillar into a moth. But this is another conversation]