Bond Dogs Made Free, or, If You’re A-Listenin’, Thomas Walsingham’s a-Talkin’

“This proclamation made the people of St Albans, who had been in revolt for a long time in their struggle for liberty, the slaves of a detestable and loathsome servitude. And as they had no one willing to carry out the task for them, they were compelled to re-hang their fellow citizens in iron chains with their own hands. The corpses were now oozing with pus and pullulating with worms and their decaying, fetid flesh gave forth a most noisome stench. That men who had unjustly usurped the name of citizen should be given this task and duty had a certain justice about it, for they could be called, as in fact they were, hangmen, incurring by this action everlasting disgrace. It was no accident that men who preferred to hold back the truth and perjure themselves rather than betray their fellow traitors should be compelled to hang up those same traitors. Even their dogs gained what their masters did not deserve. For the dogs were given freedom when their masters removed the chains by which they had been tied up, while the chains themselves were then used for hanging men, with the masters of these very dogs performing the hanging and by this action, as I have said, remaining in the most abject slavery. And it was of course right that perjurers and slanderers hated by God should be shown by the judgement of God to be worse than their dogs, seeing that their dogs were set free, while their masters themselves were still bound to perform the tasks of the most demeaning servitude. These things indeed took place at St Albans around the time of the feast of the finding of the bones of Alban the martyr, a fact that showed that he had been offended by the sins of the rebels, who had fallen headlong into manifold misfortunes in consequence.”

(from here, 166-67, on the events of 1381)

Sounds to me like this monk could have used an editor.

Even more interesting than the freed dogs: corpse-hanging. It’s commonly said that medieval animal trials treated animals as if they were responsible actors, as if the sow and her piglets who killed and ate a teenage swineherd in fourteenth-century France had chosen to do what they knew was a wicked deed. I’ve argued, by contrast, that animal trials are the sake of the dead human, not the supposedly wicked animal: condemning the animal to death returns the human to the status of having been murdered by ensuring that its killer is put on trial. The trial, here as elsewhere, is less about the rationality or choice or guilt of the defendant than it is about protecting the dominant social order.

Corpse-hanging makes this particularly obvious. The corpses are of course not being treated as rational actors. Whatever choice they made is long past. Rather, they’re being exhumed and hanged not so much to punish them as to balance or cancel out their disruption of the dominant social order: if something has been violated, something must be set right.

Thomas Netter on Wycliffite Adoration of the Bible as Book

found this via Margaret Aston. Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (Hambledon Press, 1984), 110, who summarizes some of this passage like so:

there was a certain inconstancy among the heretics for thus ‘venerating, kissing, and saluting the Gospel, revering the very manuscript’, while simultaneously claiming that living tress were more worshipful than carved imaged. By the same token should not the care they bestowed on their texts, protecting them from dirty hands and drops of rain, more logically be bestowed on living creatures — sheep (rather than dead vellum), dogs, or flies?

from Thomas Netter, Doctrinale Antiquitatum Fidei Catholicae Ecclesiae, ed. B. Blanciotti (Venice, 1757-59), iii, col. 94, available from Google Books (but oddly not, here.

Also note “I with all the faithful worship the dead Christ and despise the living Jews” for yet more evidence of the centrality of antisemitism to late medieval Christianity.

You’ll remember how “Bisclavret” begins:

Quant de lais faire m’entremet

ne voil ubliër Bisclavret.

Bisclavret a nun en Bretan,

Garwalf l’apelant li Norman.

Jadis le poeit hum oïr

e sovent suleit avenir,

hume plusur garwalf devindrent

e es boscages maisun tindrent.

Garwalf, ceo est beste salvage;

tant cum il est en cele rage,

humes devure, grant mal fait,

es granz forez converse e vait.

Cest afere les or ester:

del bisclavret vus voil cunter. (Bisclavret, 1-14)

[In my effort to compose lays I do not wish to omit Bisclavret–for such is its name in Breton, while the Normans call it Garwaf. In days gone by one could hear tell, and indeed it often used to happen, that many men turned into werewolves and went to live in the woods. A werewolf is a ferocious beast which, when possessed by this madness, devours men, causes great damage, and dwells in vast forests. I leave such matters for the moment, for I wish to tell you about Bisclavret” (translation by Gallagher)].

Frightening, no? Well, no, not really, since we never see our werewolf hero [hereafter Mr. B] eat anyone. Or really, anything (barring, perhaps, his estranged wife’s nose). When Mr. B’s wife wheedles him into giving up his secret, lupine life, he confesses that when he becomes bisclavret he goes into the great forest, into the deepest part of the woodland, and there lives on prey and plunder (“vif de preie e de ravine“).

This is violent language, but there’s nothing here about his explicitly eating humans. At least not so far as he tells his wife, or us, for that matter. Jeffrey will remark on the vagueness of Mr B’s account of his diet in a forthcoming piece in Studies in the Age of Chaucer; Burgwinkle’s talked about it too (“As he ceases to be dangerous – no devouring of men that we know of – his wife appears ever more treacherous” (166); no doubt there’s more: I don’t have Bynum’s discussion on hand, for example (although I don’t think McCracken and Kinoshita discuss this matter in their recent critical companion to Marie).

Readers of my AVMEO essay would expect me to suspect Mr. B of anthropophagy: wolves like to eat people, and Marie’s already told us werewolves eat people. Only special pleading could get Mr. B off the hook: maybe, some might say, Mr. B would be unlikely to find many humans to eat in the deepest part of the forest. That’s not much of a defense. It’s easier to accuse Mr. B of hiding the nastiest truth from his wife, who nonetheless proves that she understands him perfectly well by immediately plotting to get rid of him. More sympathetically, we might even suspect Mr. B not of being duplicitous, but of being too self-deluded to admit, even to himself, what he’s really doing.

Maybe we can suspect worse. For while there’s something marvelous about not being confined by the armor of an alienating (human) identity, there’s also something horrific (to us) about letting the human frame slip. Again following the path laid by my AVMEO essay, I suggest that Mr. B’s own vagueness hints at the consequences of giving up on human supremacy, namely, that once human supremacy doesn’t matter, humans fall under the general category of “prey and plunder.” There’s no need for Mr. B to conceal anthropophagy, but neither does he need to disguise it with a euphemism, because, for him, human flesh is just like other fleshes. There’s violence here; there’s a wrong being done, to someone or something; but it’s not a particular violence, or a violence that quite knows what it’s injuring, unless it’s the particular violence through which a nobleman sustains his position within the state of exception.

The dehumanized point of view isn’t the only stance the lai takes, however. Its opening doesn’t forget about the specificity of human flesh, not at all. I propose that we read the opening lines as modeled on a bestiary, not at all an inconsequential genre for the late twelfth-century England in which Marie wrote. See the Aberdeen Bestiary’s entry on the wolf, for example. Like Marie’s lai, we have an initial discussion of names, followed by a summary of behavior. To be sure, I may be over-reading the resemblance, but I suggest it to call attention to the generic difference between the lai’s narrative and the lai’s opening. Marie opens with what we might call a scientific and humanist voice, maybe like a bestiary, maybe not. Whatever the voice, it’s knowledgeable, distant, one that looks out at the nonhuman world, always thinking of how it might help or hurt people. To this voice, a werewolf, like wolves in general, can only be a threat.

(Monday edit: I really do need to say, here, that Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters will be doing interesting stuff with bestiaries and Bisclavret in ways that will be enormously important to my own developing Bisclavret argument)

The narrative voice, on the other hand, doesn’t care so much about human supremacy. For this point, in the next few months, look for Cohen and, as well, Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters; also see McCracken on translation and movement. The narrative voice concerns itself with gender and sexuality (see Burgwinkle and Tovi Bibring), and with feudal loyalties, but not with humanity, except to observe how it’s slipped. Note that when the King meets (the) bisclavret, he declares, first, that “ele [i.e., this beast] a sen d’ume” [154; this beast has human intelligence], and then revises himself three lines later: “ceste beste a entente e sen” [157; this beast has understanding and intelligence]. Beasts, he realizes, have their own intelligence, not a wan imitation of human reason, but rather their own. When anthropocentrism collapses, what dangers follow?

We might therefore hear Mr. B’s “preie e ravine” as at once being aware of the violence of appetite and unaware of the specificity of human flesh as compared to the flesh of deer, or pigs, or sheep. Mr. B may be hiding something from his wife; or he might just have forgotten, like most eaters, that what he eats has any significance apart from how it benefits him. After all, he’s concerned mainly with his own safety, not hers, and not with–it seems–ours.

Or he might be observing that eating means subjecting someone or something to prey and plunder; that it means taking someone’s “better part” (again, my AVMEO essay), regardless of what that thing is. This is a lai, in other words, that knows what it is to eat in a world without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute human privilege.

Next-Day Edit: that should read “without the comforts of a naturalized, absolute privilege, human or otherwise.” For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says “Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world.” I think that “Bisclavret” might answer Levi’s statement that he’s “not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like.” Well, here’s one, and it’s lycanthropocentric. It’s not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because–as Bogost reminds us–there’s no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I’m not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics.

And one more next-day edit: I know that going into the deep woods to “vif de preie e de ravine” essentially describes the life of a poacher, which matters, of course, in late twelfth-century England, given the rising importance of royal forest privileges. But I just don’t see that observation leading to an interesting reading. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

That’s all I have for now, though I have notes on hand for talking about the eaten nose. Those who looked at my book two proposal might suspect (correctly) that this material will probably form the introductory section to second chapter, leading up–of course–into my Wolf Child of Hesse discussion. Time, and effort, will tell. For now, though, I’m planning to learn what the latest issue of postmedieval has to say about about lepers.

(video from Emilie Mercier’s animated Bisclavret)

Who can be a witness?

94962674_8eb8a32cdbBriefly, two points from medieval English Law.

From Bracton (13th century), from a section on “What wreck is; and concerning great fish, that is, sturgeon and whale,” concerning who can claim shipwrecks or great sea animals that wash up on shore:

If a ship is broken and no living soul escapes from it [de qua nullus vivus evaserit] [,] that may properly be called wreck, especially if the owner has drowned, because the true owner, coming from afar, may prove by certain proofs and signs that the things are his, as where a dog is found alive and it can be established that he is its master; it will be presumed that he is also the owner of the things, and so [also] if certain marks have been placed on the wares and goods.

Further words on wrecks and life from the Statute of Westminster, 1275, c.4, quoted from English Historical Documents III, 398-99:

On wreck of the sea it is agreed that when a man, a dog or a cat escapes alive from a ship, neither the ship nor the boat nor anything that was in them shall be adjudged wreck, but the things shall be saved and kept, by view of the sheriff, the coroner or the king’s bailiffs, in the hands of the people of the vill where the goods are found, so that if anyone sues for these goods within a year and a day and can prove that they are his or his lord’s, or were lost when in his keeping, they shall be restored to him without delay; and if not, they shall remain the property of the king and be appraised by the sheriff and the coroner and given to the township to answer before the justices for wreck belonging to the king.

Classical commentators on English law judge the dog and the cat of the Westminster Statute as only examples, but there’s more, much more to be said about forms of witness and recognition: life, not of whatever sort but particularly domestic, attesting to the integrity of a ship; life that we would think of as mere zoe now political life, entering into the law as witness simply by virtue of its own integrity as life; a dog, in the Bracton, as a good witness to claims of human identity (a legal version of a story as old as The Odyssey or as common as The Dog of Antioch).

When can nonhuman life count as significant life? When is its life equivalent to that of a human? When can it give witness? Here I think I have the grounds for a future study.

(picture via Creative Commons License)

Once More with Stonehenge

Where have I been? Apart from surviving the shock of the semester’s start, and suffering the siege of many writing projects, apparently all due at once, I’ve prepared–and submitted!–a book proposal. Wish me luck. The first part of the chapter sample looks like this (thank you to Wordle, reintroduced to me through Scott Kaufman (and, by the way, congrats Scott!). Of late, I’ve also been engaging in some girdle-based program activities over at the The Valve: medievalists, join in!

Now, I don’t even want to calculate how long it’s been since I last posted anything here that possessed more substance than a comment (and not an Eileen comment either!). It may be 3 weeks, but it could well fall into the geologic, deep time that’s been fascinating Jeffrey of late. I have some ideas for part of tomorrow’s undergrad lecture that I want to try out here (the class, by the way, comprises two texts: The Romance of Arthur and Hartmann von Aue’s complete works). In honor of my class, in a tribute to Jeffrey’s roche-amour, in tribute to a still-new anthology, and in tribute my first entry into thinking about Stonehenge, a favorite topic at ITM for the rest of us, let me propose a reading.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain catalogs of a few of his island’s wonders: Loch Lamond, where prophetic eagles shriek the future, a nearby pool, neatly square, populated in its each of its four corners by a different species of fish, and the Welsh lake Llyn Lliawn, whose whirlpool swallows anyone foolish enough to face it, but leaves alone those who keep their backs turned. These wonders are the only ones in the sections the Romance of Arthur excerpts from Geoffrey, and, unless my memory fails me, they are, or virtually are, the only wonders Geoffrey includes.

We should be reminded of the Wonders of the East, and we might even be reminded of Gerald of Wales’ Wonders of the (Irish) West in the History and Topography of Ireland (Section I.26-32, pp. 53-56 in the Penguin trans.). We’re not in the East, nor indeed in Gerald’s Ireland, but we’re not far off. Barring an exception I’ll produce in my ending flourish, none of Geoffrey’s wonders can be found in Middle Britain, the area of Norman control. When Geoffrey situates the wonders at Loch Lamond and Llyn Lliawn, he brings us to the Scottish North and Welsh West, and thus to the wild edges against which a colonizing polity pushed. To confirm the 12th-century wildness of Wales for Norman and Angevin rule, we need turn only to Gerald. For Scotland, we need only remind ourselves of the fear and scorn of the Insular North in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated (according to the intro here) to within 50 years of Geoffrey:

Þat lond nis god, ne hit nis este,
Ac wildernisse hit is and weste:
Knarres and cludes hoventinge,
Snou and ha3el hom is genge.
Þat lond is grislich and unvele,
Þe men boþ wilde and unisele,
Hi nabbeþ noþer griþ ne sibbe;
Hi ne reccheþ hu hi libbe.
Hi eteþ fihs an flehs unsode,
Suich wulves hit hadde tobrode:
Hi drinkeþ milc and wei þarto,
Hi nute elles þat hi do;
Hi nabbeþ noþer win ne bor,
Ac libbeþ also wilde dor;
Hi goþ biti3t mid ru3e velle,
Ri3t suich hi comen ut of helle. (999-1014)
The land is poor, a barren place, / A wilderness devoid of grace, / Where crags and rock pierce heaven’s air, / And snow and hail are everywhere — / A grisly and uncanny part / Where men are wild and grim of heart. / Security and peace are rare, / And how they live they do not care. / The flesh and fish they eat are raw; / Like wolves, they tear it with the paw. / They take both milk and whey for drink; / Of other things they cannot think, / Possessing neither wine nor beer. / They live like wild beasts all the year / And wander clad in shaggy fell / As if they’d just come out of hell. (trans. is Brian Stone, the Penguin Owl and The Nightingale, Cleanness, and Erkenwald)

In Scotland, in Wales, we are, then, in lands at once propinquitous and far away. Near enough to frustrate dreams of a homogeneous Britain or England, the edges must be conquered. Wonder and horror both serve the desire to conquer. They transform the greed and uncertainty fueling the colonial project into a mission civilisatrice and an adventure; they allow the intellectual arm to support the colonizer’s material forces, for the clerks first render the familiar strange and then subject the newly strange to the centripetal powers of knowledge.

Stonehenge is picked up on one of these civilizing missions. Aurelius Ambrosius (Uther’s brother, hence Arthur’s paternal uncle) steals it from the Irish on the advice of Merlin, who convinces him that nothing else will do to memorialize the Saxon wars. Although close by, Stonehenge is a wonder: built by giants from stones they brought from Africa, Stonehenge and its marvelous healing properties are the only medicine the Irish (or the giants: it’s unclear) ever need. But something seems to go out of them when they’re brought to Avebury, even though they’re set up just as they had been in Ireland. What had been a hospital becomes a mortuary: poisoned kings, Aurelius and then Uther, are brought to Stonehenge only to be buried. What has happened to the wonder?

I propose one answer via Wace, who finishes his description of the Stonehenge episode as follows:

E Merlin les pieres dreça,
En lur ordre les raloa;
Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en franceis. (8173-78)
And Merlin erected the stones, restoring them to their proper order. In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants’ Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge; and in French, the Hanging Stones. (ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss)

Wace neglects to record what the stones had been called in “African,” Irish, or indeed in the language of the giants. Having done its colonial work, wonder ceases, and all that remains is British, England, French, the “local,” the mundane. Between the wondrous East and the distant West, the only power at Stonehenge is what’s buried here, but despite having been buried, what is here is nonetheless still vital. Standing in the circle, with the bones of kings beneath us, we are in a kind of entrepôt of regal memory and the imperative to conquer.

Fans of Geoffrey of course know that I’ve left out a wonder: the two dragons beneath the foundations of Vortigern’s tower, who fall to fighting when roused, and whose fighting, as Merlin interprets it, prophecies Vortigern’s inescapable future. I’m certain I’m far from the first to make the following point, and I know that I’m making this point only with the inspiration of Jeffrey’s attentiveness to the subterranean, but it’s clear that this one wonder in the land of the mundane can best be understood–at least in the context of my argument–as the return of the repressed. The colonizer’s dream of homogeneity in the centerpoint of Empire can be only a dream, for wonder is at our feet, at the very site of our national myth, where we had thought there to be only bones.


I’ve definitely been teaching Geoffrey as ambivalent, and perhaps leaning a bit too strongly on his peculiar (ethnic?) alliances with the Welsh while writing a history for (as best we know?) Robert of Gloucester. As we all know, the HRB simultaneously promotes and undercuts its colonial and imperial project. My students, may they be blessed, would have arrived at this point even without my prompting. Last Wednesday, when I just asked “What’d you think of the reading?,’ they seized upon one of the counterarguments to paying the tribute to Rome: “nothing that is acquired by force and violence can ever be held legally by anyone.” “But wait,” they asked, “What about Arthur? Didn’t he just conquer half of Europe for no good reason?” Yesterday, another student suggested that the two fighting dragons be understood, at least in part, as presenting violence from the perspective of conqueror and conquered (red for the violence suffered, white for the glory claimed). A hard reading to support, but not a bad one for that. I’ve pointed out that weird relationship the HRB has to Rome: they picked up on the Crusade bits (where Rome becomes ‘Easternized’), but thought it was strange, given the Trojan/Roman ancestry of both Arthur and Guinevere: why slag on your family that way? They liked it when I asked “and what language did Geoffrey write in?” and liked when I pointed out the Britons praising Arthur for his ‘Ciceronian’ eloquence and Geoffrey’s (apparent?) admiration of the ‘Roman’ architecture of Caerleon and what look to be echoes of classical epics (e.g., the death of Frollo).

So, yeah, I have a heard time imagining how it could be taught as anything but ambivalent, as contaminated with contradictions.

But I still want to lean on the names Wace gives Stonehenge: English, French, ‘Briton,’ but no name that preserves its (multiple) foreign origins, including a nonhuman origin from giants. And I have to disagree with you–oh sad day!–when you write: “there is no reason to believe that its giant-endearing ability to heal wounds has abated; the power in the rocks abides.” Aurelius and Uther are both poisoned. Surely if the stones could heal, Aurelius and Uther would have been healed by them. My strong sense is that wonder has–largely but not entirely given the dancing stones!–gone out of the stones: again, Stonehenge is now a mortuary rather than a hospital. This observation belongs to my larger argument, recently formulated, about the relationship between wonder literature and the justifications of conquest (I wonder if I could find analogous discursive phenomenon with Egyptian relics, where, perhaps, they might have been thought more exotic, more prone to being cursed, in situ than at the British Museum?). Once Stonehenge has done its work of inspiring another swatting of the Irish, once it’s been taken to Britain, it no longer needs to be a wonder. As the graveyard of kings, as a memorial to the desired ethnic purity of the Island, it starts to do an entirely different kind of work.

[although on “recently formulated,” see “I continue to aver not only that the Caribs, Aztecs, Pacific Islanders, and various African, Native American, and New Guinea ‘tribes’ have been exoticised, but also–and equally importantly–that Western culture has congratulated itself for putting a stop to this cultural excess through colonial ‘pacificiation’ and introducing Christianity to once-benighted natives” (Wm. Arens, ‘Rethinking Anthropophagy,’ in Cannibalism and the Colonial World, 41).]

So: you would know better than I would: are there references outside the HRB to Stonehenge in Britain healing?

That said, I love your attention to the rocks in motion at Stonehenge, to Wace’s preservation of this with ‘carole as gaianz.’ And, haha, I think your excellent reading supports where my argument ends up. In other words, despite the draining of wonder from Stonehenge, the dance of the stones undercuts any effort to keep the stones as only a memorial, as only Briton, French, and English. In that way, the stones function like Vortigern’s Tower, and suffer the same heterogeneity.

And, Eileen, yes, exactly. I referred to Arthur yesterday as a “secular Messiah,” then mentally kicked myself and added “by which I mean the Christian Messiah, in that he’s coming back.” Although I’m meant tomorrow to start on Beroul, I plan on spending a fair amount of time comparing the HRB on Arthur’s departure to Wace and Layamon. They’re similar, but the differences are worth the noticing (as another opportunity to teach the hardest skill to learn: close reading).

Mothers (and Giants) to Think Back Through

2343765663_62c5889efc_bMaybe you know what to do with the Arthurian opening of the Wife of Bath’s tale. I don’t, not quite, but then again, I’ve only just started my path towards planting my flag on some portion of Chauceriana. I found one answer in Patricia Clare Ingham’s “Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.1 (2002) 34-46, but I’m sorry to say I found it more interesting than convincing. I’m sure the fault is my own. Ingham argues on behalf of the pastoral against its critics, who condemn it for its occlusions of material realities. In her hands, the pastoral and other utopian fantasies of the time before the proliferation of “halles, chambres, kichenes, boures / citees, burghes, castels, hye toures / Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes” (3.869-71) become a site of fantasy for the conquered and therefore a way to read past the conquering, dominant culture to otherwise lost voices. However, although a British Arthur is always a Welsh hero, although there’s Celtic myth and memory in the loathly lady, the sovereignty hag, or whatever you want to call her, and although “Britons” (3.858) could be Welsh, I just can’t hear the Welsh in the Wife’s Tale. Maybe I don’t have my ear pressed hard enough to the ground.

What I do sense are incubi, now exorcised by the friars, and the elf-queen, all of whom, inspired by Ingham, I read as a site of fantasy. As much as we love Gowther’s father, his fourteenth-century fame barely rates in comparison to the cultural dominance of the incubi of the Albina legend. In a story that was translated from Insular French into Middle English, Latin, and Welsh–and what follows is a summary of one version–a Greek princess and her twenty-nine sisters plot to murder kings whom their father, a more powerful king, wants them to marry. Betrayed by the youngest sister, the remaining sisters are sent into exile on a rudderless boat, which drifts to an island christened Albion, after the oldest sister, Albina. After living for a time on a vegetarian diet, the sisters rejuvenate themselves with wild game and grow lustful. Their lust attracts incubi, by whom the sisters engender gigantic children. The children then breed with their mothers, and everyone continues interbreeding. Thus the island fills up with giants, who fight with each other so viciously that by the time Brutus arrives, 270 years later, only 24 giants remain, including a giant named Gogmagog who tells Brutus their history.

For a tale dominated by Guinevere, the voices of wives, widows, and maidens, and by an magical crone, I want Albina and her sisters to be its first gynocentric model of rule. It’s a stretch, but I also want Albina and her sisters to be the “ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo” (3.992) that the rapist sees fleetingly “under a forest syde.” I want Albina and her children to be an alternate genealogy for the Wife, one that’s traced backed to a founding mother. After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage (think here of the women in the prologue, so many of whom–okay, two–are named Alys); nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.

In essence, I want to trapdoor Ingham; but mainly I want to watch the Wife trapdoor everyone else. I want to read the first line of the tale, “In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour” (3.858) not as “In the old days, the time of King Arthur” but as “In the days Arthur would have considered old,” the time when in fact “this land fulfild of fairye” (3.859). After all, so far as I know (folklorists? Arthurian specialists?), in Arthur’s time the land was mainly full of knights, who sometimes encountered a scattered a fairy or two like Gromer Somer Joure or a faux fairy like Bertilak; for throngs of fairies, we need to go back to Albina’s day. Following Ingham, we might be able to recover Welsh resistance in this monstrous origin; but I think we can follow this back still further, to the Wife’s own desires. What that would get us I don’t know yet (please don’t say the presymbolic Maternal!).

Hell, I don’t know if I’m just recapitulating something that’s been said 100 times already.

But, correcting for the nobility, I can’t help but hear the Wife in this:

My fair sustres, ful weel ȝe knowiþ þat þe kyng oure fadir, vs hath reprouyd, schamed & dispised, for encheson to make vs obedient vn-to oure housbandes; but certes þat schal y neuere, whiles þat I lyve, seth þat I am come of a more hyere kynges blod þan my housband is.

And I’m not even sure I have to correct for the high kindred of Albina, since, after all, the Wife is so puffed up that “in all the parisshe wife ne was ther noon / that to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; / and if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she / that she was out of alle charitee” (1.449-52). And, if I can sense Albina in the tale’s own prologue, maybe I can account for an episode that–maybe–doesn’t get the respect it deserves. What the next step would be, I don’t know yet.
(conversations continue below, and much excellence to read that merits more conversation: the Carnivalesque; Publishing and Our Discontents; the Frenchness of English Jews; Mary Kate on monsters and resistances to knowledge; and, of course, Eileen’s mother of a post and its gigantic thread, “On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities”: all great stuff)

(image scanned from the delightful English Popular Art of Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx.


Limiters = Friars. She’s digging at Hubert with that line, but also echoing a standard anti-fraternal critique of the friars as a horde (see the excellent Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton UP, 1986, but also see Deleuze and Guattari on the horror of the Horde in Thousand Plateaus). Might even push at friars in their missionary aspect here, which is, of course, a kind of precolonial aspect (the avant garde). If my hunches hold, this is how they’re used in Southern France against the ‘Cathars,’ how they’re used, vainly, in the Fraternal travels to the East. I want to imagine a real difference in terms of models of taking land between the friars (the new model) and the (12th-century) monks (the ‘old’ model), but I don’t know where to take this…

But, Tom, you might also wonder: what about Arthur’s kids? And where are children, more generally, in the Cant Tales? What happens to them? Paging Dan Kline…they’re murdered, sacrificed, raped, and, yes, a few turn out well, but overall, I think of the CT’s children as nodes of pathos.


I remember reading only two pieces on the loathly lady. Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37.4 (2003): 329-45….and if my memory of my readings in Loomis holds, this does seem a bit…Loomis-y. E.g., Carter discovers the Triple Moon goddess in the wyf, maide, and widow at the court when the rapist returns. Other parts of the article are much, much better than this. Also Manuel Aguirre, “The Riddle of Sovereignty,” The Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 273-282. According to my notes, nothing about Wales or the Britons in either one.

PCI, who’s been forced to blog!, given your current projects, you’ve no doubt read/encountered Lynn Arner, “The Ends of Enchantment: Colonialism and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48.2 (2006) 79-101? Again, if my notes haven’t betrayed me, Arner thinks you over-emphasize hybridity in Anglo-Welsh relations and lose the coercive aspect of hybridization…but this isn’t how I remember, for example, Sovereign Fantasies (which I used for an inhuman Avowyng reading) (and I think Arner mis-steps by arguing for the barbarity of Bertilak’s castle, when it would have been much easier, and possibly more interesting, to work with it as a utopian fantasy at the heart of the colonial wilderness, as if travelers to Shangri-La had discovered, not some Orientalized dreamworld, but instead a cleaned-up version of London).


Not that you need my approval, but I love the new project. I can’t think offhand of any treatments of the important Newfangledness topos (except perhaps as a negative image of Dean’s World Grown Old), and certainly nothing, then, that treats it as a site of ambivalence, of desire, or even, if you want to go there, the objet petit a. But given that you’re pushing enchantment, probably don’t want to do that!

do more with what seems to me similarity between the effacement of the Welsh as colonized subject (taken seriously rather than critiqued for their ‘complicity’ with English colonization–when I was first working on this material, the conventional wisdom about Welsh as colonized was that they weren’t really a “unified” group, but rather folk with particular loyalty to their locality)and the effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the ‘loathly lady’ as a “celtic” motif.

This sounds fascinating, and I hope it finds a home someday. Perhaps my problem was looking to the article to fill in some gaps in my Wife of Bath knowledge (as I transform myself into a Chaucerian, at least for this semester). If I wanted, however, to turn on the Carter and Aguirre, above, and no doubt others (thinking of the notes in the TEAMS Gawain volume), to have the Wife of Bath be only one piece of a larger critique of the effacement of the Welsh, your approach sounds very, very useful.

I find the Albion material fascinating, but more far removed from traditions of sovereignty, although now that you mention it, I can’t quite recall why I think that

Yeah, hmmm….I tend to think of the Albion material as a (and I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere above) place to think through, encounter, fall into, be swallowed up by (choose your metaphor) problems and fascinations of sovereignty. Sort of like the hag, but not as easily relegated to some chthonic/sylvan Other, and perhaps with a more complex relationship to eros. – See more at:

Medieval Literature and Culture: A student guide, Andrew Galloway

569542Another book that suffers from a misleading title and unfortunate institutional pressures. It’s not a ‘Medieval Literature’ book; nor is it really even a ‘British’ literature book. It’s more or less a survey of traditionally delineated territory, namely, English literature from Caedmon to Caxton (where Caxton promises us the present day), with a few enfoldings of non-English works that had the most influence on medieval literature most generally (twelfth-century Parisian academic allegory, The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine, the Roman de la Rose). Galloway makes a few gestures towards Anglo-Norman literature, somewhat less to various Celtic and Norse literatures, and none at all towards Anglo-Hebrew literature (not that there’s a lot of it: but still). My ideal book would consider the intercultural and interlinguistic connections in more detail, resist more strongly the trajectory towards Westminster English, and thus would have to consider not only Britain but also, depending on the century being covered, North Africa and Rome, Norway and Denmark, Northern France, Paris, and Northern Italy. Is that too much for a 100-page book? Is it impossible to do in an ‘English’ department? Probably. But doing it any other way means either explicitly or implicitly doing an ‘ancestral’ model of medieval literature, which, at the very least in our increasingly (or finally acknowledged as) multicultural, multinational classrooms, is a mistake and an imposition.

Little Quote of the Day: Fetchez la vache

urineBeen quiet around these parts. Here’s a placeholder QOTD to supplement our various posts on heterogeneity and the English past (for example, here and here).

While browsing in a library, I ran across Bernard Ribémont’s modern French translation of Jean Corbechon’s Middle French version of Bartholomew the Englishman’s De proprietatibus rerum. My curiosity did not disappoint me when I wondered what Jean would have to say about England.

We have the usual descriptions of England taken from Bede, but then Jean hits a snag: a wild praise of England as a land so rich that it needs nothing from other lands, a land whose people are generous, honest, fun loving, and then–you can just see him throwing his quill down in disgust–he declares that there’s just too much to summarize and that the work praises England rather too much. It is 1372, after all. He then writes:

… il croit louer son pays et, en fait, il le blâme, car il dit que les Anglais descendent des Géants tout d’abord, puis de Brutus et des Troyens, enfin des Saxons. En disant ainsi, il en fait des bâtards en leur donnant plusieurs pères. Et puis il parle très imparfaitement de cette question, car il oublie la conquête faite par le duc Guillaume et les Normands, qui conquirent l’Angleterre si vaillamment qu’il en reste encore les traces dans les armoiries et les coutumes. Cela ne doit par être oublié, car il y a moins de honte à avoir été conquis par les Français ou les Normands que par les Saxons. (238)

He believes that he is praising his country, and in fact, he is scorning it, because he says that the English descended from giants first of all, then from Brutus and the Trojans, and then finally from the Saxons. In saying so, he makes them bastards by giving them several fathers. Moreover, he speaks very imperfectly on this issue, because he forgets the conquest of Duke William and the Normans, who conquered England so valiantly that there are still traces [of the conquest? of the Normans?] in the heraldry and customs of England. This should not be forgotten because there is less shame in having been conquered by the French or the Normans than by the Saxons.

(image taken from here)

Postscript: ALK just asked me, “Are there medieval accounts of boring people? Like some monk writing about another monk who was really boring.” I had to say that I didn’t know. Any suggestions?


I just noticed that the Ribémont trans lists the original translator as Jean Corbechon; Columbia’s library gives the original as Jean Corbichon. Go figure. Judging by Yale’s holdings, which I just checked, the only printed editions of Corbichon (sp?) are early modern. Can’t figure out easily how to get at Cambridge’s library catalog.

And I think it’s rather hard to come by a modern edition of the Bartholomew, too. I found the 1495 edition of Wynken de Worde (an English translation: Trevisa’s?) through Early English Books Online. Here’s a rough transcription of some of the section on England and a summary of other bits:

And then the Britons “overcame the Gyauntes both wyth crafte & wyth strength & conqueryd the ylonde & callyd the londe Brytayne by the name of Brute that was prynce of the hoste. & in the ylonde hyghte Brytayne as it were an ylonde conqueryd of bruite & tyme wyth armes & wyth myghte (transcription off?). Of thys Bruites offprynge [sic] came kynges. And whoever hathe lykynge to knowe theyr dedes rede the story of Bruite.

And longe tyme after the Saxons wanne the ylonde with many & dyuers harde batayles & stronge & theyr offprynge had possessyon after them of the ylonde & the Brytons were slayne or exylyd. And Saxons departed ylonde amonge theim & gave every provynce a name by the propryte of his owne name and nacion. And therfore they cleppyd the ylonde Anglia by the name of Engelta the quene, the worthyest Duke of Saxons doughter that had the ylonde possessyon after many bataylles.

[then we get Isidore and England from Angulo and being in the corner of the world, and then St Gregory from Bede and the Angels. And then Pliny. And a discussion of the natural resources: many harts and wild beasts, few wolves or none, so therefore many sheep. And then we get the passage that so annoyed Jean, which I took as a screen shot, available here]

Short version of all this: so far as I can determine, I don’t know (yet) why Corbe/ichon presented matters as he did.

Oh, should have made this clear. Brutus is a Trojan in this Middle English version, who comes to Albion (so called from white rocks alongside the sea). Doesn’t say where the giants come from (so no sense here of Des grantz geanz tradition). Also there is in fact nothing about William the Conqueror. Perhaps it’s because Barth is interested (or pretends interest) in only how England got its various names: how it went from Albion, to Britain, to England. William, with such an interest in stressing continuity, never renamed the island, so he doesn’t rate in Barth’s history. That’s just a guess.

And it does seem that Jean thinks of the Normans as French! I can see a reason for this in the 1370s, but it’s still rather funny, given his low opinions of Nordic/Saxon types.

No romans or vikings. But again, it’s sort of hard to get at a complete Latin De proprietatibus. The one I use in my diss is a 1601 edition reprinted by Minerva Press in Frankfurt in 1964. Not ideal, but that might be all there is. However, if anyone knows better than I know (and I’m sure 100s do), Bernard Ribémont does.

There’s been discussion of this matter here before (here and here) that seems to dovetail with what I’m about to say: Corbe/ichon (I keep wanting write it ‘Cornichon’) knows that conquest does not necessarily = extirpation. Conquest can = humiliation (hence the outrage over omitting 1066, since this is the moment when ‘France’ humiliated ‘England’), but there’s also a recognition (?) that inhabiting the land means contamination/interbreeding/however they might have thought it. Brutus and his men could not have utterly destroyed the giants; therefore, they must have interbred with them.

I would say that Corbe/ichon would take this approach because he’s writing in France, where so far as I know there is no tradition of successive genocides and dispersals. He’s necessarily going to have a different reading on the conquest of Britain, then, than British writers.

At the same time, I don’t want to obscure the possibility that Corbe/ichon is simply ‘forgetting’ the history (which he would have known perfectly well from the various Bruts floating around) in order to insult the (14th-century) English as bastards.

Brandon: I like the connections you’re making, but my sense is that Corbe/ichon isn’t doing what Snorri’s doing. Assuming for a moment that there’s a more or less clean break between pagan and Xian, would I be right is saying that the pagan ‘past’ is much closer to Snorri than it is to a late fourteenth-century Frenchman? We might think of the pagan ‘past’ for 14-15c French as a textual past that is also a textual present but in no way a material present. That is, it’s not Gaulish/Celtic/Whatever, but classical, derived not from hoi polloi but from Vergil and Ovid; the textual paganism is not ‘their own,’ i.e., it’s classical mythology. There’s still a kind of anxiety, but it’s all a textual anxiety. So we have a strong Euhemerist tradition in, say, the Ovide Moralise, the Epistre Othea, and so forth, in which they’re talking to other readers, not to possible worshippers. The instances of people taking the classical myths literally, i.e., believing that these classical gods are real, are self-conscious revivals rather than, say, rememberings, as they would have been in Scandinavia. For example, this:

Vilgard at Ravenna c. 970:

“At that time also, mischief not unlike the above appeared at Ravenna. A certain man named Vilgard occupied himself with more eagerness than constancy in literary studies, for it was always the Italian habit to pursue these to the neglect of the other arts. Then one night when, puffed up with pride in the knowledge of his art, he had begun to reveal himself to be more stupid than wise, demons in the likeness of the poets Vergil, Horace, and Juvenal appeared to him, pretending thanks for the loving study which he devoted to the contents of their books and for serving as their happy herald to posterity. They promised him, moreover, that he would soon share their renown. Corrupted by these devilish deceptions, he began pompously to teach many things contrary to holy faith and made the assertion that the words of the poets deserved belief in all instances” (Heresies of the High Middle Ages 73)

Compare this to, say, Scandinavian law codes (the Book of Gragas, the codes discussion by Anne Irene Riisoy, &c.), which make a point of forbidding pagan practices such as placating trolls &c. And these codes date, iirc, from the 12-14th c.. Quite late. In contrast, there’s the anti-pagan material in penitentials on the Continent like Burchard of Worms, but this is (almost?) entirely early 11th c. and earlier. – See more at: