Partners in Grief: Andrew and the Starving Mermedonians

1050805589_00cdad0cbfA entry in a book event, unlike a book review, makes no claim to completeness, finality, or even to treating the book under question directly. Consider yourself warned, because what I’m posting is a less-cluttered version of the marginalia you see pictured.

The subject of Blurton’s first chapter is the Old English Andreas, which tells the story of a warrior saint sent to the anthropophagous Mermedonians. Soon after he arrives, Andrew frees Matthew and hundreds of others from prison, so depriving the Mermedonians of their food. They wail, of course, and feed on the corpses of the guards slain by Andrew. Still hungry, they fall to drawing lots to determine who will be eaten next. Blurton sets out a standard approach to this episode:

When a victim is chosen in this way, in order to save himself, he substitutes his small son in his place. While the Mermedonians are described as starving: “hungre wæron / þearle geþreatod” [they were cruelly harassed by hunger] (1114b-1115a; 139), the horror of the Mermedonians’ ravenous rage turned against an innocent boy through the agency of one by whom he should be loved and protected highlights their depravity and, by extension, the righteousness of Andreas’ mission. (17-18)

She of course sets out the standard approach only to muddle the clear binaries. As Mermedonia is an island that looks much like Britain, and since Andrew’s mission seems to be as much one of conquest as it is one of conversion, we might say Andrew’s gone a-Viking and the Mermedonians are his victims (25). The Mermedonian costume and military organization should themselves be uncannily familiar to the tenth-century English. And Andrew himself is someone who eats human flesh and drinks human blood: he’s a Christian after all, and it had recently become de rigeur to demand that the Eucharist be understood as the real body of Christ.

Blurton explains in an early note that she won’t be discussing famine cannibalism in her book (139 n2), but it strikes me that the topoi of famine cannibalism can be used to draw Andrew and the Mermedonians still more closely together. When anthropophagy is a custom, it’s of course monstrous (indeed, as Blurton observes, it’s a standard feature for many of the monsters in the Liber monstrorum), but when anthropophagy results from famine, it’s a catastrophe, a cause for grief, and thus provokes a wholly different kind of horror, one that involves us rather than one that distinguishes us from some other. And it’s usual to turn to eating children during a famine: see Leviticus 26:27-9, Deuteronomy 28:53-7, Lamentations 4:10, or 2 Kings 6 :28-29; or the story from Josephus of Mary/Maria of Jerusalem, who cooks and eats half her own child during Titus’s siege (see my reference and its note in the first graph here); or the ninth-century Annals of Fulda, in which a family is saved from killing their child during a famine only when they steal a deer’s carcass from hungry wolves; or the sad story of a father who killed and ate his own daughter during a famine at the command of his Saracen captors (Innocent III responds to the father’s appeal for penance by enjoining him “nunquam de caetero carnibus pro quacunque necessitate vesceretur” (Epistola LXXX, PL 214: 1063D-64B; never again to eat any other meat for whatever necessity); or even, looking far afield, this law from the thirteenth-century Castillian lawcode, the Siete Partidas:

And there is another reason that a father can do this: according to the true law of Spain a father who is besieged in a castle he holds from his lord, may, if so beset with hunger that he has nothing to eat, eat his child with impunity rather than surrender the castle without permission of the lord (quoted from John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers 329)

Blurton aims at doing a “contrapuntal reading” (see Said Culture and Imperialism) that “creates a counterpoint between a dominant cultural discourse and a resisting perspective, which opens up a new space for meaning” (18); in this case, “Reading Andreas contrapuntally uncovers what I refer to as its cannibal narrative, that is, a narrative that is sympathetic to the cannibal Mermedonians” (18). I would like to think that if I weren’t suffering from a days’-long headcold, I could draw all this together. For now, I want only to observe that when the father saves himself by offering up his son to be eaten, any response that saw this only as monstrous would be self-congratulatory. But more likely, the response would have been the shock of the familiar, the shuddering memory of what horrors famines cause (on their frequency, and thus familiarity, see the list in P. Bonnassie “Consommation d’aliments immondes et cannibalisme de survie dans l’Occident du haut Moyen Age.” Annales 44 (1989): 1035-56, at 1045: there were 29 major famines between 751 and 1100), and shared sorrow. For a time, the readers of Andreas would have felt for and with the Mermedonians.