Sewanee Response, 2024, for Frictions of Representation

My response to 3 papers, for ‘Fictions of Representation,’ organized by Shoshana Adler (Vanderbilt)

– Taylor Cowdery, UNC-Chapel Hill, “Indentured Persons: Perkin Revelour and Eleanor Rykener”

– Julie Chamberlin, Loyola University Chicago, “Abstract Persons, Animal Bodies: The Fable of Legal Personhood”

– Annika Pattenaude, Stevenson School, ““‘that goodly mayd’: Jane Scrope’s Fictional and Real Persons”

I’m framing this with three categories: not talking, keeping quiet, and who gets to speak.

Taylor’s paper on Eleanor Rykener redescribes her as rooted in respectable London. To date, she has been taken as a sex worker, and in more recent work, as a trans woman working in women’s professions – as an embroiderer, as a tapster – and as someone supported or by or at least associated with other women: Anna, who, in the court’s language, had taught Eleanor “this detestable vice in the manner of a woman”; Elizabeth Brouderer, whose apprentice Eleanor might have been, and who first dressed her in women’s clothes; and then Alice, Elizabeth’s daughter, whom she pimped out in the dark of night, and for whom, in the morning, she substituted Eleanor. Was her aim to trick her clients into thinking they had had sex with Eleanor rather than her daughter? Wheels within wheels.

Within all this, Taylor reframes Eleanor as potentially bourgeois, and, as an embroiderer, engaged in a profession dominated by men. In Taylor’s hands, her life course, which includes time as an apprentice engaged in sex work, and, with Elizabeth Brouderer, wrapped up in elaborate sexual exploitation and trickery, is not that divergent from the life course of apprentices. Sexual harassment and craft training to raise one’s worth on the marriage market, which is at least a kind sexual market: none of this is alien to what any young person in the trades might have expected. What differentiates a bourgeois from a servant in this context may be that the young bourgeois – or, in this case, bourgeoise – can finally expect some return on their investment. Servants are maltreated; apprentices are too, but they might one day turn the tables.

I like the at least semi-respectable reading, just as I like the last few years work by trans medievalists, Alex Baldassano, in a 2017 CUNY English dissertation, and by Gabrielle M. W. Bychowski, Kadin Harrington, and, most recently, Tess Wingard, who have all sought to save Eleanor from misreadings based, it seems to me, on 20th-century assumptions about sex work, women’s work, and sexuality. Harrington, for example, emphasizes that when Eleanor has sex with men “as a woman” – that’s the court record’s language – two genders are being generated: Eleanor’s, and the man, creating himself as a man, by trading with her for sex of this sort.

But I’m also struck by what we can’t know, because what kind of sex is this? A man having sex with a woman: that’s not exactly sodomy, is it?[1] To prepare for my response, I read three other late medieval records of illicit sexuality. All these others were explicit about what’s supposedly been done. In 1477, Katherina Hetzeldorfer of Nuremburg was executed for wearing men’s clothes and for sex acts, with women, with her hands and dildos; in Leicester in 1440, the Bishop of Lincoln discovered on his visitations that Newarke College was a hotbed of sex between the canon, John Dey, and teenaged choristers. Make of that what you will. And in Venice in 1355, Rolandina Ronchaia is burned to death for the “peccato sodomitico.” By the time this record reaches us, it has been reaffirmed by torture, and whipping: the document wants every act described.

With Eleanor, though, we have a record that’s either unable or unwilling to describe what she did. We are tantalized into guessing. The court record knows what to do with her working life as an embroider and tapster. It does not know what to do with her ostensible crime. It can’t speak it: her acts are an “abominable vice,” “detestable wrongdoings,” and twice called nephandum, a word often translated as “unspeakable” or “unmentionable,” but which might better be done as some form of extraordinary impiety, a violation of universal divine laws, the fas, distinct from the local, cultural ius. You might be reminded of Hegel’s reading of Antigone in his Phenomenology of Spirit.

In 1990, Jacques Chiffoleau traced the history of the word from its Roman origins through its use against barbarians, blasphemers, and heretics before its final landing on regular people. He’s interested in how torture forces the confession of crimes that won’t be spoken of, the proximity of nefandum to the mysteries of power, and in how nefandum comes to mean, above all, crimes both against the crown and “against nature,” against, as he explains, all “integrity, definition, [and the] frontier of that fundamental theological-political space that is Christianity” — and, of course, gender. As we would expect for an article of that era, nefanda strike at the very possibility of making meaning.

I’m going to end my comments on Taylor’s paper here, by proposing that what attracts us to Eleanor is precisely that mystery. With Katherina Hetzeldorfer, Newarke College, and Rolandina Ronchaia, we know what went on. That closes certain speculative doors. With Eleanor, her identity has been batted about for decades now, but at the story’s heart is something that can’t be registered. Taylor’s speculations about Eleanor’s work finds some masculine activity in embroidery, finds some civic recognizability in what otherwise seems so grandly criminal, and perhaps countering that we have embracings of Eleanor that take her as a trans ancestor. Taylor lets her go at the end, and for that, I hope, we can all be glad.

For Julie’s paper, I’m interested in particular in the “Peasant and the Jackdaw,” because we may have no earlier witness of this fable than what I’ll call the “Marie collection,” Latin Europe’s earliest vernacular set of fables. Julie reads it as a protest against judicial corruption, of course, but underlying that, a sincere protest against the killing of what the French calls a choe, which has become, in modern English, a chough. The judge rules against the vilain, the peasant, whose jackdaw it was, ostensibly because the peasant could not understand what the jackdaw had sung, or what it had said, despite the peasant’s pleading that his precious bird had spent its mornings singing and speaking. The problem, of course, is the judge’s corruption. That’s the moral here: not to put greedy men in charge of carrying out the king’s justice.

We might have expected the judge to rule that the bird couldn’t talk. But since Isidore’s Etymologies, at least, the chough, the monedula, was notorious for its garrulousness, and since Jacques de Vitry, at least, for its love of gold and money, monetam. Albert the Great’s monumental work on animals explains, furthermore, that “it copies human voices when trained to do so as a young bird. It learns and copies these voices more readily in the morning.” Had the judge known his science, he might have recognized that the peasant knew his, because his bird is the very image of what Albert gives us, filling the morning with song and speech. But none of that matters to the judge: the point is that the peasant doesn’t understand what’s being said, or can’t recall it.

The joke, if there is one, seems to be at the expense of the peasant too, because he can’t mount as adequate defense, because doing that would require powers of recall and language that he barely possesses. Marie’s peasants come off rather badly: you might know her fable about the peasant who has a beetle crawl up his anus, believes himself pregnant, and then, by sharing the happy news, frightens his whole ignorant community into believing that some awful portent is about to be born. With the peasant and his jackdaw, we have a peasant who can’t do enough for the sake of his dead friend. He had taught it to talk, just as it could, at exactly the right time, but when he needed to step up, he couldn’t. Had the peasant not been such a peasant, and had the judge not so corrupt, things might have come to another end

Except, the same fable in Latin in the Romulus LBG collection – so called because the most important manuscripts are from London, Brussels, and Göttingen – likely dating to after Marie, and perhaps a translation of Marie into an elite language, does the status of the peasant differently: there “Urbanus quidam domitam habuit Monedulam,” a townsman had tamed a jackdaw. That status difference is worth pondering. So is the change to the moral: this time it’s “Sic multi sunt, qui loqui nesciunt, nec tamen reticere volunt”: there are many who do not know how to speak, yet neither do they want to hold back. And that’s what I want to offer to you, Julie, and the rest of us: you’ll notice how I’ve let this later moralitas infest my reading of Marie, leading me to wonder what happens when we read the fable as about who makes the mistake of thinking they should speak, when they might have done better to stay quiet.

We can flip that moral too, and wonder about those who know how to speak, but do want to hold back, because, perhaps, they could get into more trouble by speaking than by keeping quiet. If we extend Julie’s analogy between women and animals before the law, we might linger a while longer with the silence of the monedula and choe, words both grammatically feminine, of a bird that, had its words been remembered, could have had justice done for it. Something might be done with that.

Finally, Annika’s paper reads John Skelton’s “Phyllyp Sparowe” alongside the historical Jane Scrope, to mark her presence in the poem as quasi-fictional, quasi-real, a poem that’s ambivalent about whether it’s sincere or satire. This was, I confess, my first time reading Skelton (!), and Annika’s reading strikes me as correct. We shouldn’t relax the poem’s tensions. It works by keeping them both in play.

In surveying some of the criticism, I encountered another impasse, akin to the impasses that led Annika towards her ambivalent reading: the question of parody, generally answered in the affirmative. Driving that are shared assumptions that little pets don’t merit such big feelings, and that Scrope is younger than she actually was: though she was at least 19 years old when Skelton wrote this poem, she’s often called a “girl” rather than a woman, as if only a girl could feel this way. I’m grateful to Annika for correcting this misconception, and for taking her emotional and liturgical communities seriously. That said, Scrope herself wavers, calling herself once a young maid (770), and later, a woman (820). Furthermore, at least since the thirteenth century, as Alexa Sand tells us, women had been associated with lap dogs, and given the political exclusions of women, they were, indeed, somewhat socially infantilized, with the dogs themselves incarnated manifestations of precisely that infantalization. But the criticism ought not to endorse that injustice.

But I’m also wondering whether the use of vespers to memorialize a dead bird is itself “parodic.” Maybe you’ll be able to remember, as I did, a final scene of John Woo’s 1989 film The Killer, a shoot out in a church, scored, in part, to the overture to Handel’s Messiah. It’s as subtle as anything else he’s done. The music kicks in when the baddies shotgun a statue of the Virgin Mary to smithereens. Then our heroes find their courage, and, pumping bullets with pistols in each hand, they come to some kind of victory. Has Woo “parodied” Christianity here? No: he’s drawn on the emotional weight of the Church and its music to give his shootout an easier path to grandeur and dignity. Likewise, of course, for Phyllyp Sparowe, which finds in vespers what it needs to make Scrope’s grief fly. It’s a bit of a joke and a misappropriation, but that’s not all it is.

I’m also thinking of the relationship between the 2 halves of the poem, Scrope’s grieving, and Skelton’s blazon. Here I’m going to disagree with Taylor’s own reading of the poem in his recent Matter and Making in Early English Poetry. My disagreement is maybe unfair, because it’s not central to his argument, which chiefly has to do with humanistic rhetorical outpourings, the copia of “abundant writing.” But along the way, he briefly contrasts Scrope’s “imitations of Phyllyp, which t[ake] as their object a dead body” to “Skelton’s imitation of Jane[, which] seems centrally concerned with life” (166). My inclination is to keep the contrast, but to flip it.

Scrope’s mourning uses the word “soul” a great deal. Skelton’s own description of Scrope never uses it. That is, Scrope is centrally concerned with Phyllyp as an animated being. She doesn’t worry about the difference between nutritive, sensitive, and rational souls. For her, a soul is a soul is a soul, a sign of life, and of a life that can still be the object of our care even after the body has died. She does imagine a heaven for Phyllyp suitable for the sensitive soul, where he can be taken up by Jupiter to tread a pretty wren (600-601) even in the afterlife. And her memory of Phyllyp in life could not be more animated: we’re told about how it eats, where it nestled, how she feeds it, how it moves, not of it in language drawn from natural history, but rather only from observation or the imagination of observation. Here we had a lively little thing, and lively even after death, because when she tries to embroider his image, Phyllyp complains of the rendering. He gets to speak, and Scrope, losing her speech (229), falls near dead (233 etc), as she so often does, in grief and shock.

Skelton’s portrait of Scrope, by contrast, is a silent, unmoving one, with none of the interior feeling she exhibits in her part of the poem. As Susan Schibanoff said way back in 1986, Skelton “rewrites certain sections of Jane’s earlier lament to claim both her text and her physical person as his property” (840). In this later section, Scrope’s heels do move, when Skelton gets to them, but otherwise, we have nothing but the standard rhetorical furnishings of a beautiful young woman blazon’d, fixed in Skelton’s words and topical formulae. She is made as lovely as a statue, as a cameo, as gems sewn into a shiny cloth.

But then Skelton registers her talking back, once he thought he had finished the poem: we hear her complaint. This complaint, her talking back, is among the things I’d like us to talk more about, as I finish talking to you about what can’t be said, what shouldn’t be said, and who’s allowed to speak.

Thank you.

  1. I’m indebted to Baldassano for this point, and was reminded of it by Bychowski’s paper.