Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia

seminar 3by KARL STEEL

First! More zombies!

Second, thanks very much to our guest bloggers (and to Jeffrey’s organizational moxie) for what’s become a brief history of large chunks of the medieval blogworld.

I’d like to think everyone at last Friday’s Claustrophilia seminar believed it a success. Thanks much to Jeffrey, George Washington University, and MEMSI for the chance to participate in it. For the interested, my paper follows:

The events of the late fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem St. Erkenwald take place in seventh-century London during the rededication of England’s pagan temples to Christianity. Deep in the greatest temple, which would become St. Paul’s, workmen unearth a gothic tomb, carved with mysterious letters.1 Prying it open, they discover an immaculate body, royally dressed. The bewildered citizens summon their bishop, Erkenwald, who speaks to the corpse, which confesses itself an ancient pagan judge, buried as a king for his righteousness, but barred as a pagan from heaven. Erkenwald weeps, accidentally baptizing the corpse, which promptly rots while its spirit ascends to paradise. Then Erkenwald and the crowds parade through London, while the bells of the city ring out about them.

With few exceptions, criticism of Erkenwald splits into political-historical or doctrinal-historical explanations, which variously locate the poem within conflicts between the City of London and Richard II, or within debates about Pelagianism, Donatism, Wyclif, and so on.2 As necessary as such critical efforts are, they defer the ‘decision’ of reading onto the text and its historical situation. Such efforts preserve the critic as just an observer, watching the text do its work; they preserve the critic from responding to the poem. Let us have an irresponsible reading practice, in the sense of refusing to let the text and its history make our decisions for us, or, in a Derridean sense, let us have a responsible reading, in which we do not feel we’ve done our duty to the poem by situating it in this or that historical struggle.3 Our response should seek to preserve the wonder that drew us and still draws us to the poem; to be just, our response should not leave us untransformed; we should be thrown by what we read.

Claustrophilia is among my allies in the hope that, in reading Erkenwald, we might not unlock it but rather lock ourselves up with it, and to it, as hands or eyes lock together, fascinated and enraptured in their meeting. Howie decries the substitution of “epistemology for phenomenology,” and insists that we need not be constrained by what he calls “the cult of the evidentiary, which would separate ‘imaginings’ from ‘reflections’” (15). Following Claustrophilia, let us intensify rather than explain,4 especially with Erkenwald, since there is perhaps no poem in Middle English that better offers itself to a Claustrophiliac reading.

Howie joins other thinkers who reconceive time as embedded instead of as a sequence in which the past is neatly and continuously swapped out for the present.5 For Howie, moments touch on one another and become moments through this touch; moments drag others behind them; they are in networks around each other in which no moment will ever quite be abandoned or ever simply be itself. In Erkenwald, we need not struggle to rethink time as topographical and interfolded—to recall Michel Serres—rather than geometrical.6 Its time is piled up, mixed, all moments touching:7 it takes place “noȝt fulle longe” [not very long] (1) after the crucifixion, yet somehow in the seventh century; the judge, asked when he had lived, answers enigmatically, interweaving dates,8 and the “New Werke” [New Work] (38) at St. Paul’s took place in the thirteenth, not the seventh, century. The alliterative christening of London’s temples preserves as much as it converts: although those of Jupiter and Juno become the churches of Jesus and James (22), the temples persist in or with the churches poetically, through the stressed J that sustains the past as a point of contact, as an echo.9 In their co-presence and non-assimilative contact with the London of Erkenwald’s day, the temples recall Howie’s “metonymic understanding of poetics…in which contiguous terms come to participate, not just semantically but also in a sense ontologically, in one another without losing their distinctness” (15).

Nowhere is Erkenwald so available for Claustrophilia as in its architecture.10 First the people of London, and then Erkenwald, penetrate into the foundations of St. Paul’s. They are enclosed within a space that receives them. In the depths of the temple, a tomb emerges into their midst, drawn up from the ground.11 Bordered with letters whose sense will never be deciphered, enclosing and giving up a judge whose name the poem never reveals, the tomb reserves the fullness of its own being to itself. It is paradigmatically a space that, to quote Howie, “resist[s] the gaze of its public even as it offers itself to this public” (13).12

Erkenwald arrives and locks himself away to pray “to kenne / Þe mysterie of þis meruaile þat men opon wondres” [to know the mystery of this marvel that men wonder upon] (124-25), and, his prayer granted, he leads a Spiritus Domini mass. His increasingly agitated questioning, however, suggests that Erkenwald has not in fact been granted knowledge; there is a miracle here, but it is not one of knowing. The miracle is like this one, from the Acts of the Apostles, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.” For the Spiritus Domini is a a Pentecost mass, or a Votive mass,13 associated with the visitation of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous traversal of linguistic difference. “Þurghe sum lant goste lyfe” [through some lent ghost life] (192),14 the corpse can speak, and through the ghostly investment of Pentecost, Erkenwald can speak with the dead: speak with, become open to, know himself in the presence of, but only in the sense of knowing himself to have been “summoned…into a more concrete, ecstatic relation to what lies not just beyond but within these boundaries” (Howie 4). This is a figure for our responsible encounter with poetry, we might say, especially as Erkenwald, having intended to know all by absorbing more and more about the judge’s life and history, is instead stricken with more intense wonder, and finally is brought to where he “hade no space to speke so spakly he ȝoskyd [had no space to speak so violently he sobbed]” (312).

As for the crowd, they have already joined with the tomb itself. When the judge begins speaking, “Þer sprange in þe pepulle / In al þis worlde no worde, ne wakenyd no noice / Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde / Wyt meche wonder forwrast, and wepid ful mony”15 [there sprang in the people in all this world no word, nor wakened no noise, but they stood as still as stone and listened, seized with much wonder, and very many of them wept] (217-20). D. Vance Smith remarks that “this apparently miraculous scene extends—and even displaces—the crypt outwards to the site of the living, who gaze back at the judge’s corpse with a marmoreal quiescence. The work of metaphor transforms the living into memorial stone.” Yes, I say, to the crowd enclosing the tomb with their own bodies, yes, as well, to the tomb itself joining with the crowd, yes I say to what’s implicit here, namely, that it is as if the crowd lends its speech and motion to the corpse, who in turn lends his immense stillness to them; but, pace Smith, this is not a metaphoric substitution. This is metonymy, as Howie writes, “contamination by contiguity” (19), “catching, in both senses: grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness,” a stony and alien pagan tomb at the heart of frenetic Christian London and a speaking, singular, and honored corpse amid a motley assemblage of Londoners. To repeat, this is metonymy, “grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness and making of it, of that momentary contact with it, a new creature: a monster or a miracle” (107). Not substitution, not assimilation, but transformative contact. The tomb has emerged into their midst, emerged, not unconcealed.16 From Howie again: “In order for other people and things to ’emerge’ we must in a sense ‘merge with them: not in an appropriative fashion, nor in the sense of a reductio ad unum” (33).17As Howie urges, drawing on the language of Kaja Silverman, we must participate. The crowd has not only seen the tomb, marked its edges, wondered at its being while considering how it holds its mystery to itself. They are, in the heart of St. Paul’s, within the tomb, stone themselves in the moment and space of this contact, where the tomb itself comes to speak and move; they are, I must emphasize, with-in the tomb, at once with it and in it, around it and a part of it, enclosing it and being enclosed by it.

If I could, I would freeze the poem here, stop reading, arrest its and my progress amid the crowd and the tomb; this would be a sacred without a telos, an apocalypse without an eschaton. But the poem moves on; the judge is baptized; and “sodenly his swete chere swyndid and faylide / And all the blee of his body wos blakke as þe moldes / as rotten as þe rottok þat rises in powdere” [and suddenly his sweet face wasted away and failed, and all the color of his body was black as grave-dirt, as rotten as decayed matter that rises in powder] (342-44). London, faced with a gap in the foundation of its civic consciousness, assimilates the threat; but the horror of the judge’s transformation suggests that London, having satisfied its desire, has arrived inevitably at the nauseating Real. Is this what their desire wants? Perhaps, if it is a grasping desire, an explaining desire, driven by lack. But Howie gives us another model: “Between mine and not mine, what intervenes is close to mine, neither appropriable nor wholly other: within reach, without ever being fully grasped” (15). With this, we might ask what the crowd lost by gaining its desire’s object, when it ceased to remain with it, where it might have let itself be and be had in its desire. With the judge gone, the crowd goes out, and “meche mournynge and myrthe was mellyd to-geder” [much mourning and mirth mingled together] (350): in closing, we might ask what they are mourning, when, happy to believe that they know what has happened, thinking that the past is finally shut up, they leave nothing behind in St. Paul’s except an empty tomb.

Works Cited

Bugbee, John. 2008. Sight and Sound in St. Erkenwald: On Theodicy and the Senses. Medium Aevum 77, no. 2: 202-21.
Chaganti, Seeta. 2008. The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chism, Christine. 2002. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’. Cardozo Law Review 11: 921-1045.
———. 1995. ‘Eating Well,’ or The Calculation of the Subject. In Points: Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, 255-87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Grady, Frank. 1992. Piers Plowman, St. Erkenwald, and the Rule of Exceptional Salvations. The Yearbook of Langland Studies 6, no. 1: 63-88.
———. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Merciless Parliament. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22: 179-211.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. 2009. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Howie, Cary. 2007. Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nissé, Ruth. 1998. ‘ A Coroun Ful Riche’: The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald. ELH 65, no. 2: 277-295.
Otter, Monika. 1994. ‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and The Medieval Sense of the Past. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24, no. 3: 387-414.
Scattergood, John. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Custody of the Past. In The Lost Tradition: Essays on Middle English Alliterative Poetry, 179-99. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Schwyzer, Philip. 2006. Exhumation and Ethnic Conflict: From St. Erkenwald to Spenser in Ireland. Representations 95, no. 1: 1-26.
Sisk, Jennifer. 2007. The Uneasy Orthodoxy of St. Erkenwald. ELH 74, no. 1: 89-115.
Smith, D. Vance. 2002. Crypt and Decryption: Erkenwald Terminable and Interminable’. New Medieval Literatures 5: 59-85.
Turville-Petre, Thorlac. 2005. St. Erkenwald and the Crafty Chronicles. In Studies in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Texts in honour of John Scattergood: ‘The Key of all Good Remembrance’, ed. Anne D’Arcy and Alan J. Fletcher, 362-74. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Whatley, Gordon. 1985. The Middle English St. Erkenwald and Its Liturgical Context. Mediaevalia 8: 277-306.
———. 1986. Heathens and Saints: St. Erkenwald in Its Legendary Context. Speculum 61, no. 2: 330-363.

1 MED s.v. “rūnish,” (a) “mysterious, strange.” Turville-Petre 2005 at 373 ingeniously suggests that the tomb might correspond either to the St Paul’s Rune Stone, discovered in the 19th century, or some earlier find of the same sort (for image, see here); at 371, he also observes that the MED correctly suggests “that the meanings of renish and runish have here become confused, for in these quotations the sense is that derived from the common Middle English noun roun (from Old English run), which has a semantic range that includes ‘voice, utterance, secret’ as well as ‘written character.”

2 The better examples of such readings include Bugbee 2008; Chism 2002; Grady 1992; Grady 2000; Nissé 1998; Sisk 2007; and Whatley 1986. Otter 1994 and Smith 2002 are rare exceptions to “closed” readings of Erkenwald. For example, at 408, Otter writes that “The searching and digging, the guessing, deciphering, and questioning, begin to stand all by themselves, and even for themselves: the poem, itself part of the questioning and deciphering of the past, at one level mirrors itself.”

3 Derrida 1995, 286, “responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility. A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is at times also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the petty or grand inquisitors”; also Derrida 1990, 252, “A decision that would not go through the test and ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision; it would only be the programmable application or the continuous unfolding of a calculable process. It might perhaps be legal; it would not be just.”

4 “Intensify” and “intensification” appear frequently in Claustrophilia; for example, at 18, “This ethics of intensification has distinct ontological consequences: intervention within the compromised appearance of enclosed bodies and texts amounts to participating in these appearances’ being-apparent. Interpretation, or aesthetic reception, is thus not entirely discrete from aesthetic production: it reaches across the aporia between seer and seen, to make something more visible, contingently, approximately, and thereby also offers itself to sight. This movement also makes something more hidden, deepening the artwork’s depths even as it intensifies the surface. Claustrophilia thus, beyond readerly “response” and deconstructive supplementarity, makes singularity more apparent through participative intensification.”

5 Among others, see especially of Harris 2009, 2, which critiques the “national sovereignty model of temporality”, where “each moment [has] a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state’s: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution”; Harris writes against the notion of a moment “as a self-identical unit divided from other moments that come before and after it” (5) to disrupt the old binary of synchronic versus diachronic study (10).

6 At 174, Harris 2009 quotes Michel Serres’ Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (with Bruno Latour), “Classical time in related to geometry, having nothing to do with space, as Bergson pointed out all too briefly, but with metrics. On the contrary, take your inspiration from topology, and perhaps you will discover the rigidity of those proximities and distances you find arbitrary. And the simplicity, in the literal sense of the word pli: it’s simply the difference between topology (the handkerchief is folded, crumpled, shredded) and geometry (the same fabric is ironed out flat).”

7 This is not an uncommon observation about the poem: Schwyzer 2006, for example, writes “Wreaking havoc with the temporal equivalent of depth perception, the queasy fascination of the preserved body consists not only in making what is far away seem near, but also in robbing the near of its wonted security and familiarity. Thus, the Londoners in the poem experience not simply the simultaneous failure of living and historical memory but also a collapse of the distinction between these two modes of memory” (7).

8 “Hit is to meche to any mon to make of a nombre. / After þat Brutus þis burgh had buggid on fyrste, Noȝt bot fife hundred ȝere þer aghtene wontyd / Before þat kynned ȝour Criste by Cristen acounte: / A þousand ȝere and þritty mo and 3 thren aght” (205-210). Scattergood 2000, 196, provides a model from 1269 shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster abbey, made by Peter of Rome, ‘ANNO MILENO DOMINI CVM SEPTVAGENO ET BIS CENTENO CVM COMPLETO QVASI DENO HOC OPVS EST FACTUM QUOD PETRVS.”

9 Other commentators have also noticed the effect of alliteration, but have read it as either an anxious inability to suppress the past or as metaphoric substitution. Chaganti 2008, 67, is a rare exception: “Particularly in this visual and material sense, alliteration reinforces a pattern of vestigiality: letters are repeated in pagan and Christian names, so that the past not only prefigures the present, but it also leaves behind pieces—letters, like statues and buildings—which are adapted in the present and incorporated into newly cleansed Christian structures and words. The poem uses the narrative capacities of material objects and the material capacities of letters and language to demonstrate the trope of vestigiality, the reliquiae, that which is left behind. The inscriptional aspect of alliteration thus provides a defining temporality for the poem; the recursive return to what has been left behind,” so suggesting “ceremonial temporality.”

10 To a different end, Chaganti 2008, 69, also finds the poem interested in enclosure, “At the level of the poem’s explicit narrative…exist many self-enfolding layers of enclosure, establishing the role of enshrinement in the text’s imagery.”

11 I echo Otter 1994, 410, where the tomb “unexpectedly surfaces—literally—and is simply there, a fait accompli, ‘fourmit on a flore,’ as the poem solidly puts it.”

12 See also Chaganti 2008, 56, where the runes “both embellish and obscure the meaning of an enshrined object. And in this capacity, their illegibility symbolizes the mystified nature of the late-medieval shrine in English churches and cathedrals. The runes speak through their very impenetrability, their resistance to being read as language, about the nature of ceremonial encounters with shrines as decorated objects, a mystery at once challenging and suggestive.”

13 Whatley 1985, especially 295 n10.

14 Note that I follow the manuscript reading here rather than Peterson’s tendentious emendation to “Þurghe sum Ghoste lant lyfe.” See Whatley 1982, 294 n9.

15 Smith 2002, 66. Vance’s reading is, in essence, an epistemological one, concerned with our inability to know, whereas mine concerned with our ability to be touched: in sum, the very fact of being moved by the tomb is itself a presence. Other critics have remarked on the stone image: Nissé 1998, 289, “In this way, the memory of the Trojan past is reinscribed in a collective historical consciousness: ‘Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde’”; Chaganti 2008, 53, “The poem defines the judge not only as a bounded material object, but also as an occasion of performance and performative self-constitution. In the above simile, ‘as stile as the ston,’ the transfer of the stone’s materiality from the judge’s tomb (and static body) to the people looking at it makes them interactive participants in a scene of performance blending spectacle, ceremony, and architecture….the language of the poem renders indeterminate the boundary between the stone tomb and the astonished audience, so that both fill the positions of either a material thing or an occasion of spectacle.”

16 Howie 2007, 33, which explains his preference for emergence over unconcealment: “I prefer the latter term inasmuch as it consolidates both moments better than ‘unconcealment’ can. To be sure, ‘unconcealment’ presents itself as the constitutive negation of the hidden, but ’emergence’ speaks forth an even greater, and more spatial, paradox: literally e-mergere, emergence plunges, immerses, engulfs not into but out of: it is enclosure figured as disclosive opening, approximation as distance.”

17 See also Sara Ahmed Queer Phenomenology, “What touches is touched, and yet ‘the toucher’ and ‘the touched’ do not ever reach each other; they do not merge to become one,” quoted in Harris 2009, 149.