Excerpts from my three recentish academic publications, not counting book reviews:
“The Rules of the Game: Wolf-Hunting and the Usefulness of Knights in Piers Plowman” (2022), in The Yearbook of Langland Studies.
Piers Plowman twice attempts to justify aristocratic hunting, first on the half-acre, when Piers tell the knight that his duties include defending his hedges against boars and bucks, and his grain against birds, and then again in a new passage in C.9.224-26, which commands knights to protect men, women, and children by hunting wolves. The hunting justifications are unusual. As jealous as they were of their hunting privileges, aristocrats justified it only as practice for martial hardships, and never as serving any common social benefit. For their part, clerics tended to condemn hunting. Not Langland: as he seeks some purpose for knights in his social imaginary, he reframes one of their chief entertainments as generally useful. The C text even intensifies the justification, with its new threat from wolves. The addition, however, sees Langland commanding knights to engage in the one form of hunting that could be considered a duty rather than a pleasure, and, moreover, to hunt an animal that was, by Langland’s day, virtually extinct in England. Overall, Piers’s hunting justifications tether the utility of hunting, and by extension the utility of knighthood, to an animal too hard to find and too ignoble to be worth the chase.
A chapter, “Human / Animal,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval English Literature (2023), where I observe:
If reason’s purpose is less to describe a certain kind of thinking than to elevate one class of beings above another – human above animals, the supposedly free from the supposedly unfree, and so on – the claim to reason ultimately aims to devalue most beings by declaring them incapable of making their own decisions. Although ‘irrational Animality’ as a degraded category of life is terrible for nonhumans, is it not that good for humans either: instead, it preserves an outside to the ideal of ‘rational life’. The primary function of this latter, nearly unreachable ideal has not been to secure a special human dignity but rather to elevate one ever-shifting small group of humans over everyone else.
A chapter in The Body Unbound: Literary Approaches to the Classical Corpus (2021) called “Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations,” where I talk about a very strange story, and argue for a non-phallic framing of sexual injury, which refuses to accord the phallus the terrifying dignity that’s it’s typically granted:
My main concern here, however, is what happens to the knight’s genitals.Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member. Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a literal castration. It is not unexpected that he does not actually lose his penis entirely. Although genital injury is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it is in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, castration itself is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval narrative more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience could have understood the knight’s first injury, then, as sufficiently castration-like to count as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood the injury as a mortification, expiation, or warning.
Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for them, because the story as a whole neither suits Peter’s stated program for the collection nor makes much sense as record of specifically Purgatorial punishments.