Are musards farblondget? A sketch of a lexicographical note on Yde and Olive


From Peau d’âne, the Lilac fairy tells Donkey Skin that “On n’épouse jamais ses parents”

I’m so grateful to the Medieval Feminist Forum for publishing Mounawar Abbouchi’s edition and translation of Yde et Olive, a portion of the massive Huon de Bordeaux cycle. This section feature a cross-dressed hero (Yde) who, after some chivalric adventures, finds herself, reluctantly, married to Olive, daughter of the Roman emperor; after some awkward moments of attempted intimacy, Yde confesses all, Olive promises her fidelity, but a servant (“garchon”) gossips to the emperor; Yde’s faced with execution for having deceived the emperor, but an angel rescues her by granting her everything a man requires for his humanity (tout chou c’uns hom a de s’umanité; 1048). It’s a reverse castration miracle, with gender transformation (or realization) added.

Yde sets out on this path because her widowed father, Florent, wants to marry her. It’s a familiar story, from Marie de France’s “Les deus amants” (where it’s only hinted at), to Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale (interrupted), to Peau d’âne, and one I typically teach with reference to Gayle Rubin’s classic “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy of Sex.'” In essence, girls in such a system are meant to sex trafficked to other families: it’s not as if the normative marriage model is any better for them. King Florent’s advisers are horrified, unsurprisingly, at this insult to the system:

Sire,” font il, “Damledix vous en gart!
Onques n’avint, ne jamais n’avenra;
Or n’est il hom que, s’il vous escoutast,
Ne vous tenist de tel coze a musart. (256-59)

“Sire,” they said, “God keep you from this!
It has never been done, nor will it ever come to pass.
No man who hears you
Would not take you for a deviant. (Abbouchi trans)

“Musart” is a hard word, and “deviant” works well enough in this context, primarily for etymological reasons. In modern English, “deviant” has a slightly statistical quality to it, and, as a noun, a sense of sexual deviance from the norm that feels anachronistic to the Middle Ages. But the word deviant comes from the Latin for going off the way (de + via), that is, wandering; and “musart” has, among its meanings, a similar quality of going astray.

For in modern French, a musard is a flâneur, an idler, a libertine; in Middle French too; In Middle English, idleness, too, although with more than a whiff of general dissipation: one of the MED’s examples sees Dindimus, the ascetic philosopher, accusing Alexander the Great “Of fornicacion & filth & many foule synnes, / Maumentry, & manslatir, mosardry & pride, Þat dose ʒow dompe to þe devill.”

The word also has a more general quality of “fool” or even “jerk,” as it seems to function as an all-purpose insult. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary offers this example:

Que dites vus, mal musard, felon mescreant? Quidez vus sustenir la guerre entretant Contre sire Edward, un tiel prince pussant?

Which we might translate, very loosely, as “What are you saying, you jerk, you asshole? Do you want to go to war against Lord Edward, who’s such a powerful prince?”

Or is a mustard perhaps just an unfortunate, or a fool, as with Yde and Olive’s son Croissant:

Or vous dirons de Croissant le musart
Qui par poverte est alés en essart
[Now we speak to you about Croissant “le musart,” who because of poverty went into a forest clearing; 1149-50, edition Elena Podetti]

And there’s also a proposed historical sense of the word having to do with certain travelling musician/versifiers, who go about, so to speak, with their muzzles (museaux) in the air (E. Rostand, Les musardises; yes, that’s the Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand).

Does the word come from these musicians? From people who muse too much, that is, who think to no particular end? If musards are étourdi, scatterbrained, are they farblondget?

There’s surely much more to say here! Florent’s advisers clearly think their king is up to no good. The poet — not terribly accomplished anyway — may be using “musard” less because of its lexicographical precision than because it fits the laisse’s scheme of assonance. And, anyway, the word doesn’t seem to have much specificity.

Without endorsing Florent’s horrible aims, we might spend some time with the word, taking it up as an early witness to the foolishness of having no particular plans, no fixed address, of wandering by the wayside, of holding open a position for no good to be done. Florent’s court wants him to be productive; they want an heir; but he’s not going to be productive on the terms they require. He’s a bad deviant, but Yde, his daughter, and eventually, his son, is also a bit of a deviant too.



“Los dreitz que tenon l’amador” [The Laws that Lovers Hold]: Initial Notes on the Political Imaginary of the Trobairitz, or, What’s Wrong with Neofeudalism

Although Aristotle’s Politics begins by insisting that “the qualifications of a statesman, king, householder, and master” are, whatever their apparent resemblances, not the same, he effectively erases this very caution in his next passage, which considers political life at what he claims as its foundation: political life begins with the union of male and female, because of their “natural desire,” shared with animals, “to leave behind them an image of themselves,” but also because of that union of “natural ruler and subject.” Having said this, Aristotle has to distinguish between women and enslaved people (of whatever gender, presumably): though both are made to serve, women have other uses, presumably having to do with the future.

And though Aristotle takes some time before he imagines how households, joined together, form a state with a ruler, we still see his imagination of politics here in miniature: it is the order of ruler and subject, motivating force and object, or, we might say, form and matter, a kind of social hylomorphism.

I offer this by way of contrast to the political imagination of the Trobairitz, although I’m sure what I’m about to say is equally applicable to the roughly 2500 surviving troubadour songs (Bruckner et al, xliii). And, as it’s been perhaps 17 years since I last dipped into this material, I’m certain I’m making points that have been made before, for centuries, many times. Bear with me.

While Aristotle’s political imagination neatly splits ruler from subject, the Trobairitz poetry intermingles them. They do this because their political imagination is essentially that of mutual obligation between local rulers, none with a claim to being the single lord of an entire region or an entire people. Those who were ruled, at least if they possessed the political clout that made their loyalty desirable, could complain, resist, and even betray, leaving their lord for another one, because another castle, another city might be a better home. The permanent claims and obligations of citizenship made to those born to a nation state — and, recall, that “nation” comes “nasci,” that which has been born — are not at all applicable here.

It is for this reason that I have been grumpily resisting claims that our present era of capitalism, characterized by temporary labor (or “at will” employment, where the will is exercised only by the employer), non-disclosure agreements, the privatization of the public sphere for the benefit of the few, and especially the “hardening of divisions in society,” between rich and poor, has much to do with “feudalism,” with all due respect to Jurgan Habermas, and with somewhat less respect to The National Review. To claim that the hardened divisions between rich and poor, and indeed the increasing immiseration of working people after a few decades of postwar prosperity in the industrialized, colonial powers, is a reversion to a “medieval” state of politics is to ignore both the terrible condition of working people through much of the 18th and 19th centuries — a category that includes both colonial subjects and enslaved people — and the characteristically modern tendency of Neoliberalism. “Neofeudal” aims to catalyze resistance to present misery by likening it to the Middle Ages, but insofar as it’s a misdiagnosis, the metaphor offers little guidance, or worse, for any practical reimagining of political and economic life. The diagnosis works only for those who disdain the “medieval” so much that they don’t bother to learn anything about it.

For if we examine the actual language of actual people living under feudalism, we find a language worried about secrets, betrayal, loyalty, and obligation, organized around contracts. Of course, the Trobairitz are poems of elites talking to other elites. They represent no one who is not in possession of property and a band of armed supporters to defend the exploitation to preserve it. Yet the elites do vary slightly in power, enough so that the elites imagine their meeting as something other than equals. And in that slight inequality, we see something other than a mere hardening of social divisions, and something other than a political relationship of form to matter.

“Fin ioi me dona alegranssa” worries about “li lausengiar,” the gossips, who might draw others into alliance with them (the word is “acordamen,” and apologies for not knowing Occitan!) (Bruckner et al, 13). “Ia de chantar non degra aver talan” speaks of ladies and knights, each obligated to plead with each other to prove their love (17), as one might in any legal or social dispute in court: pleading, after all, implies that power doesn’t lie only in the one person. “Amics, s’ trobes avinen” builds sensitive, somewhat fragile mechanisms of contracts:

I will never hold you worthy
nor will I love you with good and faithful heart
until I see if it would help me
to have a harsh or evil heart toward you. (19; see also 27, 31, 45, 51)

Or, this, the opening stanza of “Mout avetz faich lonc estatge,” so easy to read in a political register:

You’ve stayed a very long time away
from me, my friend, since you departed,
and I find it harsh and grim,
because you pledged and you swore
that all your days
you’d have no lady besides me;
and if you’re attending to another,
you have murdered and betrayed me [mi avetz morta e trahida]
for in you I had my hope
that you would love me without wavering. (23; see also 31)

The same poem talks about love having “seized me so” (m’a amors sazida, 23), which I imagine might be military language. I suspect there’s a great deal of other legal or quasi-legal language I’m missing because of my ignorance about the field: for example, one speaks of a lover who wants to “summon” (convenir) her friend (21); another of “maltraich e.l damptnatge” (damage and harm, 25). Another, “Bona dona d’une re” ends with a description of the perfect lover, which also might be a description of the perfect vassal:

Friend Betran, a lover must act nobly
if he is honest, faithful, and no deceiver. (53)

Now, we might say that all of this is simply metaphorical support for love. Since the poets used this language of obligation, submission, and loyalty only because this the material on hand, it might be said that this love language tells us very little about actual political life. But actual political life is not simply a matter of economic relations; it cannot be reduced, in its final analysis, to a play of numbers (for a parody of such analysis, see Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which I just taught in another class). Actual political life is necessarily ideological, and ideology is not only the “false consciousness” of actually existing political relationships; it is also consciousness, as such, because all consciousness is necessarily an inadequate negotiation with the actually existing disorder of things (with measured respect for Slavoj Zizek, who made this very point repeatedly before he derailed himself). That is, we can learn something about “feudal” life, if this is what we want to call this play of petty, local lordships, by reading how they metaphorized their political life.

And, by extension, we can imagine that the gradual disappearance of troubador poetry through the later middle ages, and its general absence from medieval England — which my hunch tells me is the case — has less to do with changing tastes, and perhaps little to do with the submission of Toulouse to Northern France, than it does with the gradual transformation of political life into one that didn’t allow for the (slightly) free play of gossip, betrayal, and loyalty required for anyone to imagine their erotic life as analogous to a political life. Powerful kings, in short, killed courtly love.


Brucker, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, ed. and trans., Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland, 2000.

Sayf Ben (or ibn) Dhi Yazan: the maverick motif

Lena Jayyusi knows how readers unfamiliar with Arabic medieval romance are likely to approach her translation of The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, namely, as a repository of narrative motifs. She provides one herself. We will be tempted to index the work still further against the Thompson motif index, for example, or perhaps, more relevantly, against those found in E. H. Ruck’s An Index of Themes and Motifs in Twelfth-Century French Arthurian Poetry, Anita Guerreau-Jalabert’s Index des motifs narratifs dans les romans arthuriens français en vers (published the same year as Ruck’s volume!), or even those in the Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi (ThEMA).

We will do this because so much is so familiar, even to those of us, like me, whose medieval education concentrates only on Middle English, Old French, and Latin works. Readers of medieval romance, from whatever place in whatever language, will know not to look for forms of characterization particular to the modern novel. Characters vary, slightly, but only in a very narrow band: the men are all brave, some wicked, some good, and pagan men never win, though the best fighters among them convert; wizards can be good or wicked, but they are mostly wicked; women might connive, and they are, for the most part, extraordinarily beautiful; and, in the first half of the work, they might creep along beside their beloved — as Shama does with Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan — in full armor, rescuing him from danger. All of this is (mostly) expected, and so too are the elements of the plot (mostly), distinguished from the romance of Latin Christendom (mostly) only by the “local flavor” of the divine and spiritual assistance: no eucharistic miracles, no talk of hell, but instead the great, gigantic, and airy force of the jinn. So we turn to the motifs to organize this episodic, yet (mostly) familiar work into some further, perhaps meaningful pattern.

For example: Sayf is abandoned as an infant by a wicked ruler who fears he will supplant them. He’s left to the elements, though not before being bedecked with jewels that will identify him, much later, as a man of quality, and as the offspring of his bad parent. A gazelle finds him in the wilderness, and feeds him from her teat. The earliest such story dates to the Akkadian account of the childhood of Sargon; and then next earliest, quite similar, that of Cyrus of Persia, abandoned, rescued by dogs (or a human named “dog”), who then reveals his quality as an adult. A later one, a few centuries prior to this Arabic romance (15th or 16th century?) is Marie de France’s lai of “le Fresne.” Such stories at once attest to the innate rather than merely inherited quality of the hero, letting him (and it’s mostly a him) claim his power through his own might, while also speaking, contrarily, of the ineradicable presence of his natural, aristocratic inheritance. Nothing much distinguishes Sayf’s childhood from this pattern, except, perhaps, the acquisition of a new, jinn foster-mother, superior in power and loyalty to the wicked, supplanting concubine, Qamariyya, his mother.

So much weight in that except! For normally the mother in the “feral foundling” story is erased, her child stolen, her mothering shoved aside in favor of the new parent. Romulus and Remus’s mother, or Moses’s, or any number of other, more obscure mothers: they generally don’t matter much. As I write in my forthcoming book:

Typically, as with Cyrus, Romulus and Remus, or Wolfdietrich, the foster mother drops from the narrative altogether, as does the birthmother, whose typical narrative function is only to be impregnated, to flee, to give birth, and to lose her child. The standard feral child story thus erases both mothering and its labor twice, first by cutting off the child from its birth mother and what he owes her for her labor, and then by cutting off the child from the mother who raised him.

Provided with knowledge like this, knowing what normally happens, and knowing how Sayf differs, we have to wonder at the limited use of the motif index. Tracking similar narrative elements across texts has its uses, not least of all that of undoing the supposed distances — linguistic, religious, geographic, and so on — that supposedly separate one region from another. The boundaries later formed by colonialism and European worldwide dominance prevented no transmission of good stories, or similar encoded anxieties and hopes, in the centuries prior. But we might also want an index of modified motifs, records not just of the similarities, but of the key variations, surprises. And, in response to such an index, we would ask whether a variation actually marks more narrative agency on the part of the work, which thus serves as a mark of significance in the otherwise unchosen, even unthinking flow of narrative motifs; or we might ask whether the variation, and with it, that element of “singularity,” really merits that kind of admiration: because isn’t the belief in the particular significance of singularity a kind of cultural mystification too, like our supposed love of individuals, rebels, and mavericks? What’s more important culturally, the standard model, or the one-off? The Prick of Conscience or Pearl?

Further discussion in class!

Pleasure and Rhetoric: On Matthew of Vendôme and Geoffrey of Vinsauf

Grammar, personified, can be perfectly innocuous, bearing nothing but a wax tablet, as she does in twelfth-century illustrations for what is probably either The Marriage of Mercury and Philology or The Consolation of Philosophy: see the image to the right, for example, or, from the same manuscript, here, or this illustration from a fifteenth-century Boethius. Writing is just what she does, and whatever the difficulties we might encounter in learning how to do it, none are apparent in her placid face or her accoutrements. Yet many medievalists will also know the famous Grammar on the West Facade of Chartres Cathedral, who looms over her young charges with her ferule; underneath her are Donatus or Priscian, backed up by the authority of classroom corporeal punishment. None of the facade’s other seven liberal arts carry a weapon; Music is ringing bells, for example (note: I need to check this more carefully!). Learning to write, the facade says, is difficult, unpleasant, an invitation to pain.

Which is why it’s surprising to find such a focus on pleasure in Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova and Matthew of Vendôme’s Ars Versificatoria: whatever their differences–and the Ars merits its reputation for tedium. while Geoffrey’s perhaps merits its enormous popularity–each work aims to teach writing primarily to ward off boredom, disgust, and creeping feelings of dissonance. Or, to put this another way, each aims to create equilibrium and harmony, to increase our pleasure in reading.

Those of us who teach English Composition may be surprised at this goal: I do, and I certainly was. As I understand it, training in writing in the twenty-first century American college classroom tends to focus on grammatical rules, not to preserve or increase the pleasure of the reader, but for clarity of expression, and, especially, to serve as a sign that the writer has been credentialed. The college-educated writer knows the rules of commas and semi-colons in English, and can at least the fake the manner of being to the manor born by spelling each word correctly. Arguments are the other thing we teach: students have to have something to say, and have to know how to get that across. We want them to learn to think, to make an intervention, to join an existing conversation. And we want them to abandon the habits they acquired in earlier, bad teaching: the standard, pointless openings — the dictionary definition, the inverted triangle, and so on. If pleasure has anything to do with this approach to teaching, I don’t know where it is.

But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, pleasure was all! On metaphor, Geoffrey writes “When you transpose a word whose literal meaning is proper to man, it affords greater pleasure, since it comes from what is your own” (44). Later, on transposition, he observes “When meaning comes clad in such apparel, the sound of words is pleasant to the happy ear, and delight in what is unusual stimulates the mind” (50). On metonymic expressions of cause, “There is greater pleasure and satisfaction for the ear when I attribute to the cause what the effect claims as its own” (51). In warning against “ineffective” word use, Matthew of Vendôme speaks of “suitable” repetition, which “is formed in three ways: for the purpose of an addition, for the purpose of clarification, and for the purpose of greater expressiveness” (95): the first two options are practical, the kind of advice that one might encounter in the tens of thousands of English 1010 classes currently being run right now; the last, though a woolly and uncertain thing, points to the pleasure of being overwhelmed, a little, by what one reads. The so-called “reversible” metaphor, the antistrophe, has, Matthew explains, “a singular pre-eminance among the other tropes, and should be used especially by verse-makers: for it adopts a special beauty to the metrical arrangement”  (86). Or — one more example — Matthew likens effective versification to a bejeweled object:

there are some expressions which are, as it were, substitutes for jewels; from skillful positioning of these the whole meter will seem to be celebrating. For multiform ornamentation of them imparts by positioning the benefit of its beauty to other expressions, and by association, as it were, applies the attractiveness of a certain festive character. (64)

Each writer dedicates themselves to teaching the avoidance of fault. Grammar is taught elsewhere, whereas Geoffrey and Matthew are interested in vocabulary, the arrangement of words and clauses, and, above all, elegance and harmony. In their examples, we encounter a certain social harmony, where the young women who so often serve as objects to illustrate character, are at once the objects of desire and paragons of demureness. Matthew’s disdain for enslaved people, inherited from a Roman slavocacy, further attests to the cruelties and exclusions of the fantasy of social harmony. Men have to be men; matrons have to be wise; the old cannot love, and the young must be full of energy. The avoidance of grammatical fault is the avoidance of social fault. I am reminded, necessarily, of Marcos Gonsalez’s writing about racism and English composition, for example, “When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing’”.

Gonsalez writes about the ignorance of his colleagues, and their largely unconscious subjugation of their students to grammar’s ferrule:

In their radically liberal and progressive and student-centered pedagogies [phrases, I should emphasize, Gonsalez is using with merited disdain –ks], the students are the ones who have to adapt, to change according to a professor’s shifting standards. The underlying assumption beneath my colleague’s question is that my student’s use of language, with their specific ways of speaking, writing, knowing, and experiencing the world, is not of the university and the writing classroom. This implies to students that their everyday speech and their everyday forms of composing the written word is not intellectual, is not appropriate for sharing with others on the page. The words in Spanglish, the humorous inversions of logic at the end of a thought, the hard accent and emphases of a student born and raised in the South Bronx, the means of interpreting the world unique to their kind of body and their bodily history, is deemed not good enough.

Avoiding fault means becoming standardized; avoiding fault means becoming harmonious, which means not standing out. Medieval techniques of rhetoric persist.

Yet there’s something to be said, still, in favor of Geoffrey and Matthew’s dedication to the pleasure of reading and writing. They don’t really want to rock the boat, of course; they don’t see writing as a kind of thinking, and they certainly don’t see thinking as a form of social transformation. But then again, the same holds true for most instruction in writing, even now, which, as Gonsalez argues, is so poorly fitted to drawing out the artistry and actual experience of our students’ lives. What happens to writing instruction when we put pleasure at the center? And what happens when we find in Geoffrey and Matthew that wellspring of pleasure — surprise, excess — which introduces a certain thrilling disharmony into the smoothness of a rhetorical order that rests on the deadly harmonies of the existing social order?

Intro to Medieval Studies, Class 2, Norse Sagas, Free Write

(going to do this every Thursday so help me God, and thank to the Most Dangerous Writing App)

Anyone familiar with Marie de France’s Lais, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Parsifal will recognize narrative elements from the Saga of Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga: the outsider to court who, like a fool, neither knows nor respects the rules of courtesy and the underlying social hierarchies that they sustain, but who reveals himself to be a greater, less self-conscious hero than anyone already lodged in court, like Svipdag and Bodvar in Hrolf; the strange figure who comes from the outside, a man older or at least more imposing than the usual run of men, who arrives to turn a feast to worry and wonder with his uncanny demands, like Bertilak or Odin; and then, birds that enter through windows, assume the forms of humans, and then have sex with humans longing for a mate, like Marie’s Yonec, or any number of stories in Hrolf Kraki and the Volsung Saga about transformations into fierce, forest carnivores — bears or wolves — and the difficulty of living as both human and beast. Even the bear mate material appears in the late vernacular literature of Christian England. Much of this material belongs to still more widespread narrative traditions, like women who interpret dreams correctly, tell the terrible future, and get ignored, a trend we can identify running from Cassandra’s to Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (where Chaucer parodies the tradition by making Pertelote a misreader) to Hilary Clinton herself.

My hunch is that we might want to avoid calling these elements “folkloric,” although I offer this hunch without any strong grounding in the scholarship of folklore. I am more inclined to mark these elements as common narrative elements belonging to generally non-literate forms of transmission. The kinds of narrative, and what they supposedly say about either a people or the purported “deep structures of human thought,” probably matter less than the technologies of transmission, first of all, and secondly, how the spread of these stories say about the supposed ethnic unities of ancient peoples. If these stories can be so widely told, then what matters is the stories, not the “people,” if that makes sense.

Finally, however, I am interested in what drops out from this material as it makes its way into the storytelling in the later medieval continent, in, say, French, Middle English, and Latin. The question of fate remains important, of course; but now fate becomes wrapped up with the philosophical problem of “free will.” Women warriors do not entirely disappear, but they are far more often outliers; eating the flesh or drinking the blood of the powerful no longer grants the eater the power of what they had eaten. As professional, supervised religious monocultures emerge, we get a new notion of the outside, no longer organized simply between the Hall and the Forest: the outside might be a civilization too. We might do well to consider, then, not the “survivals of the ancients” but rather what does not survive, and what social and economic transformations lead to their disappearance and transformations.

Bret Stephens, Mosquitos, and the Fantasies of Freedom

Bret Stephens, a 45-year-old white man who is currently a New York Times columnist, was recently called a “bedbug” by a faculty member at the George Washington University.  His bizarre reaction to this stimulus: to write both the George Washington University Provost and the Director of its School of Media and Public Affairs, to invite the GWU professor to his house to insult him, personally, in front of his wife and child, and to complain on national television that “there’s a there’s a bad history of being called uh of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes in the past.”

As others have observed, this “bad history” (double entendre no doubt unintentional) goes back to 2013, in Stephens’ column for the Wall Street Journal. He was then not quite 40. There, in a column someone titled “The Boring Palestinians,” he wrote:

Only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this four-million-year-old mosquito?

Outrageous and pathetic, and, had Stephens stuck to the Wall Street Journal, the column would have remained undiscovered and unread. But as the Times saw fit to translate him to a higher post, I’m going to briefly point out the antisemitic roots of Stephens’ analogy, and then suggest, just as briefly, a few points about the problem of freedom, which I’m considering for my book-in-progress, The Irrational Animal.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s chapter on “Race” in his 1856 English Traits argues that the particularly mixed nature of the English, comprising Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic blood, creates in them a freedom of character that has suited them for mastery of the world; what Emerson sees as particularly American, he implies, derives from just this mixture. It’s a telling moment in this history of racism: Emerson isn’t arguing for racial purity, but rather for something more foundational to the dream of racial purity, namely, the dream of natural superiority, and the freedom of culture and self-invention that comes with it.

By way of contrast, Emerson observes, predictably enough: “Race in the negro is of appalling importance”; “the Arabs of to-day are the Arabs of Pharaoh”; and “Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments.”

One race is free: free of compulsion, free of history, and, paradoxically enough, free of racial instincts. The others are constrained to be what they are, forever: trapped in amber.

Medieval European Christian thinkers would generally not have said such things about “Negroes” or “Arabs” (and I use generally advisedly: of course they did, sometimes, but not as often, or with the same political effects, as a nineteenth-century European Christian). They would have said such things about Jews, often. The classic treatment is Jeremy Cohen’s Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999), published when Bret Stephens was 26, by which point he was already working as assistant features editor at the Wall Street Journal. To read Cohen’s book in its entirety is to realize that medieval Christian intellectuals often portrayed Jews as unchanging, sclerotic, as trapped in a kind of perpetual animal obedience to their Law, incapable of true thought. They were intellectual peasants, and peasants were, essentially, beasts. Twelfth-century Christian scholars, in speaking to Rabbis, as they sometimes did, imagined they were speaking directly to the “Old Testament.” One might imagine the same, mutatis mutandis, of scientists able to extract the DNA from the mosquito frozen in amber.

The trick is not, however, to insist that Palestinians are free political actors, and that Jews are rational too, like Christians, although I do recognize the occasional local political utility of such claims. The trick is to push back against the underlying claim of freedom. Stephens’ insistence that the Palestinians are mosquitos frozen in amber — and his implicit claim that Israeli Jews, in their attachment to the Holy Land, are somehow exercising their rational will — relies on an unexamined certainty that certain kinds of people have freedom, and that others do not. It relies on what were already outmoded ideas by the time young Stephens was doing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in the early to mid 1990s: for ideology can’t be escaped; the claim to “reason” is never anything more solid than a self-justifying fantasy; and nothing is more delusional than the man who sees himself as free of the weight of history’s incubus, speaking truths that no one else dares to voice. Such a man is, in essence, a bedbug dreaming of being a human. Like us all, I suppose.



Saint Ephigenia: when did she become a Black saint?

Recently, at the Cathedral Fortress of Tui, in Galicia, my companions alerted me to what I guess is a 17th- or early 18th-century statue of Ephigenia, an Ethiopian saint associated with Saint Matthew who seems to have first appeared in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. Maybe 30 minutes of research so far shows that she’s well known to scholars of colonialism, race/racialization, and piety. But my suspicion is that this same body of research hasn’t communicated much with the medievalists. I’m certain I’ve missed something, and I’d be shocked if the Hispanicists weren’t on this already. So consider the above statement a hunch.

[next day edit: h/t to Cynthia Hahn for turning me on to Erin Rowe’s work on this. Looks like she has it covered. Two of her articles, which are, presumably, preparatory for her next book, are:

“After Death Her Face Turned White: Blackness and Sanctity in the Early Modern Hispanic World,” American Historical Review, Vol. 121, no. 3 (June 2016): 726-754. [ebsco link, but prob works only for CUNY]

“Visualizing Black Sanctity in Early Modern Iberia.” Invited contribution to: Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, edited by Pamela Patton. Leiden: Brill, 2016.]

Here’s the statue:

DSCF9061 (3)

Saint Yphigenia, Cathedral of Tui, Galicia, photo by Karl Steel, July 23, 2019

I’ve tried to make the image as clear as possible, but for someone else’s photo, with more of a snapshot feel, see here.

My hunch was that she’d be light-skinned in her first medieval appearances. The hunch seems to be, at least in part, correct. Examples:


Golden Legend, Bruges, Morgan Library, MS M.672-5 IV, fol. 92 (1445-1455).

The Morgan’s caption explains: “Within second room of architectural setting, Iphigenia and virgins gather as man, standing outside, holds bucket of flames to walls of enclosure.”

This one is a bit harder to spot, but I think she’s among the nuns in the upper left-hand corner. From the Morgan’s description: “Hyrtacus denied Iphigenia — Hyrtacus, crowned, with arms crossed on his breast, stands behind five seated nuns, all looking toward Evangelist Matthew, nimbed, preaching from pulpit.”

This post couldn’t be more preliminary. I’m hoping to explore all this further in my Fall Intro to the Medieval Studies seminar at the CUNY Grad Center, by which point, I trust, I’ll have found more images and also, I expect, the scholarship that’s already thoroughly explored what I’m playing with here.

My goal here is to further tease out the history of racialization, and the intertwined histories of gender and sexuality (as I suspect that were Efigenia an Ethiopian male saint, she’d be dark-skinned in the Golden Legend), less for my own scholarship, and more for my teaching.

Further reading includes:

Cheek, Sheldon, “The Black Saint Who Embodied Christianity for the African Masses,” The Root, April 29, 2014.

Maddocks, Hilary Elizabeth, The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Légende Dorée: Jean de Vignay’s Translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (PhD Thesis, U of Melbourne, 1989) (pdf)

Sánchez, Roberto. “The Black Virgin: Santa Efigenia, Popular Religion, and the African Diaspora in Peru.” Church History 81, no. 3 (2012): 631-55 (JSTOR)

Valerio, Miguel Alejandro. 2016. “The Queen Sheba’s Manifold Body: Creole Black Women Performing Sexuality, Cultural Identity, and Power in Seventeenth-Century Mexico City.” Afro – Hispanic Review 35 (2): 79-98