Erkenwald and the Muslims

John Stow on LudgateIf you were up at 9am on a Siena Monday, and decided to head out to the train station, you might have heard the latest work on my continuing Erkenwald project (earlier versions here and here). The paper? “The Past as Past is its Disappearance: Erkenwald and the Jews”: the interested may look for the whole paper elsewhere, but my argument, in essence, was to assert that the past Erkenwald creates (and erases) is not only pagan but also (what it figures as) Jewish, and that it figures this Jewish past as past (which is to say static and ultimately untouchable by the ‘present’). I offered only an implicit connection to the “Touching the Past” theme. To elaborate more, briefly: it’s Erkenwald v. Faulkner.

Some evidence:
  • Erkenwald’s opening explodes with multiple temporalities, which it just as quickly resolves into two times: the past (time of law) and present (time of grace), as if the poem explicitly illustrates how to condense the heterogeneity of time into coherent temporal polities;
  • Among the “pagan” temples the poem converts to Christianity is “Þe Synagoge of þe Sonne,” which is “sett to oure Lady” (21): since Gollancz the criticism has ignored the “Synagogue” or apprehended it as yet another pagan temple. I read it, however, as signaling a particular building, a synagogue taken by King Henry in 1243, given to the Brethren of Saint Anthony [paranoiacs will suspect a porcine insult in this dedication] and rededicated as a chapel of Mary (Close Rolls Henry III, 1242-47, 142), an event recalled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and perhaps also in the intervening centuries (follow the link above to the paper itself for a tendentious sophisticated exegesis of the “Synagogue” being off-kilter from the central site of the poem, the demolished [not converted] temple where St Paul’s would be built);
  • As Erkenwald criticism knows, the closest analogue for its unbaptized righteous judge appears in the Trajan material of either Piers Plowman B.XII.270-95 (Schmidt ed.) and C.XIV.194-217 (Pearsall ed.), or, more exactly, commentaries on Purgatorio 10.73-75, either by an Anonymous Lombard (1325) or by Iacobo della Lanna. Trajan’s righteousness? He has his own son executed for murdering a widow’s son. Trajan includes himself wholly within the law, utterly committed to following it even if doing so means destroying his own progeny. He is therefore at once a figure and victim of merciless justice, of law that offers only destruction, no expiation. Erkenwald’s judge is likewise a figure of justice without grace, exit, or future: the substitution of pagan emperor for pagan judge thus intensifies judicial elements already present in the original story or indeed in Pauline doctrine as it tended to be understood by medieval Christianity (key texts: Romans 4:14 and Galatians 5:4-5);
  • Finally, because honestly I could go on, Harley 2250 (made in 1477), a miscellany of exempla, clerical guides, and saints’ lives (partial listing here; thanks to Alan Stewart for sending me a more complete list), where our sole surviving copy of the poem resides, contains little or no reference to England’s pagan past, barring its Alban legend (I think the same as Laud 108 South English Legendary version), of interest no doubt because it is an English martyrdom. It does, however, include (at least) three works concerned with Jews: one on the conversion of the Jews of Beirut, another on a Jew robbed between Bristol and Wilton, saved by the virgin, who converts, and another, notably, on the Jews’ vain attempts to rebuild their temple. No doubt I will talk more about this at the 2011 MLA Convention in an Erkenwald session organized by Philip Schwyzer and starring Seeta Chaganti, Naomi Howell (U of Exeter), and me, your most humble of sinners.
Read on for the Muslim question!

The converted temples of Erkenwald’s opening also include these: “Þat ere was of Appolyn is now of Saynt Petre, / Mahoun to Saynt Margrete oþir Maudelayne” (19-20, that which was dedicated to Apollyon [or Appolo] is now dedicated to Saint Peter, and Mohammed to either Saint Margaret or Magdalene).

I’m asking you, blog readers, lurkers and otherwise, to weigh in. As Sarah Salih asked (and I paraphrase: apologies for memory slips), in Erkenwald‘s grand narrative of past and present, of creating the past and separating it from what it wants to be present/presence, what do we make of the continuing present of Islam, this most recent of world faiths, situated here in the distant past of London as it is situated in the now of Christianity? What to make of these, given my arguments about the “past as past”? No doubt Mary Kate’s paper on Chaucer and the Anglo-Saxons could help here.

My answer was, I have to say, a bit weak. I had read “Synagoge” closely, so in all fairness I couldn’t just read past the Mohammed reference. So: I answered by speaking of the poem’s “Islamic idol” as further figuring the inability to close off the past as past; more simply, the Mohammed reference might suggest the resolution of all non-Christian faiths into one homogeneous glob: pagans, Jews, and Muslims are all equally lost; alternately alternately, we might understand that Erkenwald grants Islam an antiquity medieval Christianity tended to deny it, thus undercutting one of the key arguments against Islam, namely, its newfangledness.

Surely, though, there’s more that could be done?

(postscript: for the image, above: I read Erkenwald as medieval kindred to John Stow’s early modern account of a discovery made during repairs to Ludgate in 1586: here, mixed in with the supposed remnant of London’s legendary foundation by the pagan King Lud, workers discover a stone “grauen in Hebrewe caracters,” the very image of what Christianity understood to be its foundational, superseded past.)

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