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.