Be Realistic, Ask for the Usual – against the “realism” of the Miller’s Tale

West Fjords, Days 3, Látrabjarg

This Látrabjarg puffin doesn’t approve of your tastes.

Students — and probably not only students — often praise Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for being “more realistic” than the “Knight’s Tale.” With its love of the so-called lower functions, of “mere lust,” and cynical deception, the Miller’s Tale isn’t loaded down with all the high seriousness and sublimation of the Knight’s: this is what they say, anyway.

But why should bawdy cynicism be more “realistic” than a commitment to duty and honor and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs and desires? Why should selfishness, and the belief that you’re the free agent in a world of silly fools who just don’t know how things really are, man be the truth? This self is just as much as ideological carapace as duty and honor.

In general, the preference for realism strikes me as a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to believe that other people have beliefs (or that you too have your own stupid prejudices). It’s a preference that gives us the Reeve’s Tale, which is, if anything, a “more realistic” version of the Miller’s Tale, and that gives us, ultimately, that godforsaken genre, the “Gritty Reboot,” which, as we all know, is ideology critique, consciousness-raising, and desublimination, all at once, but for total jerks.

Day 3 – Chaucer – Parliament and House of Fame and Haraway

Pynson's 1526 printing of the "Book of Fame." from EEBO

Pynson’s 1526 printing of the “Book of Fame.” from EEBO

We started with the story of the Giraffe recently killed, publicly dissected, and then fed to lions by the Copenhagen Zoo. Apart from the practical angles of the situation (who brought their children to this event and why?), and the issues of which animals would not have caused a furor (a gazelle? a pig?), we considered the issue of biopolitics. Obviously, the giraffe’s trapped within the sovereign exception, but in this case, the sovereign is acting to preserve, as it were, the health of the herd. In this case, however, the increase in control over a genetic heritage does so to increase geneticdiversity (as the zoo killed the giraffe because it was a product of incest), in other words, to create a situation of maximal “health,” which means maximal unpredictability. That double motion of the motive and effect of preventing incest, biopolitically, is something Wolfe’s Before the Law doesn’t consider. We also considered the oddness of, in effect, punishing a giraffe for violating the fundamental “cultural” taboo of incest.

pointed out the image of the pig on crutches from a fifteenth-century saint’s life of Charlemagne (!), partly to promote Gallica as a resource for medieval studies, partly to show how this manuscript (BnF Français 4970) shows evidence of a workshop (one decorator did plants, and presumably another one did animals of various sorts, including what appears to be a centaur stealing a human baby (f 42r) — suggesting an interesting aesthetic difference between animals and plants — and also, finally, to discuss briefly the difficulty of talking about marginalia or other “purely” decorative items. What can they mean apart from the pleasure of the production?

Then we have a conversation we should have started to have had weeks ago, on the problem of the term “animal” in the Middle Ages. My test case was from Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will, where, in a discussion of the human worldly monopoly on reason, Augustine uses the words “bestiis,” “belluis,” and “animalia.” The latter should not be translated “animal,” I stressed, but rather as “living things” or as “things possessing a soul.” There is, in fact, no single term for “animal” (in the sense this word has in modern English or French) in the Middle Ages, at least not so far as I know. We also discussed the etymological strangeness of the “animal” word, which is that “animal” itself comes from “anima,” both spirit and breath, and some sort of animating essence.

Our example was the Middle English “beast” 1 (a), “One of the animal kingdom (including man), any living creature (non-vegetable).” Can beast mean “human” too? Maybe. In some of the MED‘s examples, yes, but perhaps not in their first, this lyric.

Foweles in þe frith
þe fisses in te flod
And I mon ware wod
Mulch sorwe I walke with
for beste of bon and blod

[Birds in the forest / fishes in the water / and I must go mad / much sorrow I walk with / for beast (best?) of bone and blood]

Birds have a place, and so do fishes. They’re in a place. Humans on the other hand have to move through a place. They don’t fit, which is precisely the condition of madness. But what does that last line mean? What does the “for” mean?: “for them,” as in he is weeping on their behalf or about them? Or “because of” them? And is he among them or somehow separate and weeping? It’s unclear (presumably quite deliberately so). We also noted that the division between the freedom of birds and fish and the confinement of terrestrial beasts also maps onto dietetic practices (fish and fowl didn’t have “blood” in the same sense quadrupeds do, so the former are, generally, okay during Christian fast times) and also onto the six days of creation (humans and beasts are on the sixth day, birds and fish on the day previous).

Then we briefly considered Derrida on the issue of LIFE, as quoted in Wolfe Before the Law.

“life has an absolute value only if it is worth more than life … It is sacred, holy, infinitely respectable only in the name of what is worth more than it and what is not restricted to the naturalness of the bio-zoological….Thus, respect of life in the discourses of religion as such concerns ‘human life’ only in so far as it bears witness, in some manner, to the infinite transcendence of what which is worth more than it”

What is the proper human relationship to “nature,” then? Well, in “Foweles in þe frith,” we are somehow excessive to “nature,” crazy or ill fitting, which is precisely what gives us worth and troubles us. Perhaps.

And then there’s Alan of Lille’s Plaint of Nature (de planctu naturae), a twelfth-century Boethian lament that may well have been one of Chaucer’s sources for the Parliament of Fowls. There humans are the only worldly creature that doesn’t keep to it’s proper natural place; we’re excessive, in fact (and, in our sex acts, solecistic, in to the degree that we don’t model the supposedly proper relationship between subjects and objects); and when we behave this way, we are, per Alan, acting like beasts. Which is to say, we’re behaving…naturally?

So how should we then live? Should we follow the dictates of nature? Should we not fit into nature (and be mad or sodomites?)? Should we somehow transcend nature? What should we do?

This discussion led naturally into the Parliament of Fowls, where Chaucer is somehow excerpted from nature as its witness, mad or broken to the degree that he can’t fit into the game of love.

One recent Chaucer critic talks about the “natural harmony among all living creatures” of the Parliament, which is true, to a degree. This works in the stanzas beginning on line 190 and keep up for several stanzas. The birds have voices like angels and so forth. But then we’re in a world where “no man may …waxe sek ne old” (l. 2077): so this place is anything but natural, then. Once we enter into something like the so-called “natural world,” we have noise; we have all birds pairing off except for the very best bird, met with the impossible choice of three mates.

What messes things up? Maybe things go wrong here:

“And Wille, his doughter, temprede al this while
The hevedes in the welle, and with hire wile
She couchede hem” (ll. 214-16).

Wille, while, welle, wile — will, that is, desire, and will guiding itself — this is where things go wrong.  At this point, we leave the harmonious (super)natural world and enter in to a version of the Roman de la Rose, where desire and will lead all astray. Nothing is settled.

This led us to a consideration of the problem of “common profit.” Is this a kind of oxymoron? Doesn’t profit, which is extra, somehow work against thecommon, the usual, the selfsame, and the predictable? Where does desire fit into this, then?

We took a break to talk about the introduction to Haraway’s When Species Meet and also watched some canine agility training (your professor got particularly excited). What are some of her main arguments? We pointed out how Haraway contests the tragic mode of Derrida: is our relationship to our domestic animals always only one of mystery and shame? Is this really how we engage with our cats? We observed how Barbara Smuts leaves animals in the time(lessness) of evolution, and how she needs Derrida to complicate her picture of time. We contested her notion that it’s “turtles all the way down.” First, there’s the way object-oriented ontology contests Haraway’s process ontologies: what about the way that things are not entirely available to each other or don’t understand each other, or how umwelten (environments) are always insufficient to apprehend fully the things that they come in contact with. And then there’s actual lived experience: those we are, scientifically speaking, turtles all the way down — we really are walking ecosystems, even or especially on the cellular level — in a lived experience, we feel ourselves to be individuals, and we feel that our deaths are the real end of something. As they are. Does Haraway’s turtling “undermine” our lived experience by proposing a more real scientific level? We hope not.

And then to the House of Fame, all too briefly.

I showed some sources. Metamorphoses for the House itself; Vitruvius 5, 3, 6 for the model of sound waves as ripples in water; and AugustineConfessions and City of God for everything having its own natural place (and also some intractable humanism). Here it’s LOVE that makes us want to ascend. But for Chaucer, as for Aristotle (//Physics// 8.4), the motion, whether of sound or anything else, is totally natural.

Several other things about House of Fame: Chaucer has to realize the radical insufficiency of his body: he needs the eagle, so so much for the superiority of the human body in the “homo erectus” topos. I would also say that though Chaucer says he is no Ganymede (589), he is, after all, being taken to heaven by an emissary of Jupiter: he’s like a little boy being taken up by a lusty eagle, which is to say, this is quite a queer moment.

And then there’s the modeling of sound. If the human voice is, to the air, like the squeaking of a mouse or the violent noise of a pipe, if the voice is just broken air, then we’re hearing speech from the perspective of the air. Very ecological! And very nonhuman in its account of the rational voice, that one quality that supposedly separates humans from everything else in this world.

And the voice ascends to Fame not through love but through a purely mechanical process. One has to presume that the world up there is also populated by virtual mice and noisy tables as well as virtual people.

And then we have the eels/humans at the end, which contrasted, for at least one of us, with the desert at the end of Book I.

Anelida and Arcite and Zombies

Whitby Ruins in Distance

Whitby Ruins in Distance

Sometime either before or after the appearance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had an idea for a novel by the same name. Let’s say almost certainly after. In my version of PP&Z, no one fights zombies. No one needs to rewrite the novel. The plot remains intact: we still have Mr. Collins, the Bingleys, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, all Austen’s panoply of human frailty and silliness and pride and prejudice; we still have Austen’s plot and words. We have them all, until the beginning of Chapter XIX, the last, which would go like this:

Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley and talked of Mrs. Darcy may be guessed. I would I could say, for the sake of her family, indeed for the sake of us all, that the zombies had never come. But they did, and I write this, I suppose, as the last of our human race, soon to die, blessedly, by my own hand.


Here’s a zombie novel as it should be done, without heroism, without hope, written with as full a picture as possible of what the universal catastrophe destroys. Zombie narratives tend to center on the survivors, but what about everyone else? They have lives, beautiful lives some of them, lives–like Elizabeth Bennett–full of wisdom and high feeling, full of the promise of a beautiful future, and then the zombies come, and it all goes dark.

I’ll leave aside the obvious parallels with death (which, with the stupidity of a shuffling zombie, snuffs out the beautiful, wise, and hopeful) to observe that the coming of the zombies doesn’t destroy the novel. Not even retroactively. The high feelings were there. They mattered. They matter, maybe, even after the zombies come. It’s not a matter of saying, “Why should we care about Mr. Darcy’s hurt feelings, when we know he’s going to be dismembered by his own family?” After all, Pride & Prejudice 2, or maybe Pride & Prejudice 14, might have to end with Elizabeth’s death, unless she’s some monstrous immortal, unless this is Pride & Prejudice & Vampires.

Which it’s not, thank goodness.

That’s all a long wind-up to saying that I taught Chaucer’s Anelida & Arcite (hereafter Anel) for the first time last night, which is to say, I read it for the first time recently, because I’m not (shhhh) much of a Chaucerian. Being more of a Chaucerian than I am, you know that Anel’s often considered to be a failure, unfinished. I’m not so sure, because I think it might be–brilliantly!–structured like my own version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

In words that may or may not be Chaucer’s own, the last stanza runs as follows:

When that Anelida, this woful quene,

Hath of her hand y writen in this wise,

With face ded, betwixe pale and grene,

She fel a-swowe; and sith she gan to rise,

And unto Mars avoweth sacrifise

Withinne the temple, with a sorowful chere,

That shapen was as ye shal after here. (350-57)

[When Anelida, this woeful queen, had written [the preceding lament] in this manner in her own hand, with a dead face, between pale and green, she swooned; and then she arose and with a sorrowful visage vowed sacrifice to Mars at his taple, which was made as you shall hear below]

To Mars, of all gods! Mars, “which that through his furious cours of ire…/ throng her, now ther, among hem [Athens and Thebes] bothe, / That everych other slough, so were they wrothe” (Anel 49, 55-6; who through his furious wrathful course / forced his way now here, now there, among both Athens and Thebes, / so that everyone slew each other, as they were so wrathful). An Armenian princess living in Thebes, of all places, sacrifices to Mars, whose image Duke Theseus of Athens bears on his war banner. Theseus, who appears in the poem’s opening, returning in triumph to Athens from Scythia, “in his baner large / The ymage of Mars” (Anel 30-31; on his large banner, the image of Mars), and who seems to disappear entirely from the narrative. Theseus, the bane of Creon, the widow’s savior, Thebe’s nemesis. It’s clearer in Lydgate than it is in Chaucer:

He bete [Thebes] downe and the howsys brente,

The puple slough for al her crying loude,

Maad her wallys and her towrys proude

Rounde aboute, evene upon a rowe,

With the soyle to be lade ful lowe,

That nought was left but the soyle al bare. (The Siege of Thebes 4556-62)

[He beat Thebes down and burned the houses, and slew the people, despite their loud pleas, and made her walls and her surrounding proud towers, all in a row, to be knocked down entirely to the soil, so that nothing was left but bare soil]

Theseus has not, then, disappeared entirely from Anelida & Arcite. He’s as present as air. He awaits, creeping amid the story of Arcite’s betrayal of Anelida and his subsequent yoking to a politic woman, over all Anelida’s self-lacerating lament, over all this high desperation. Destruction awaits Arcite, who, at best, will be rescued “nat fully quyke, ne fully dede” (KnT I.1015; not entirely alive, nor fully dead) from a heap of Theban corpses, his city a wreck behind him. And destruction awaits Anelida, as we would have expected for an Armenian Princess, whose kingdom fell to the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1375 (for more on the trauma of this collapse, felt as far as England, see Carolyn P. Collette and Vincent J. DiMarco in SAC 23).

All this feeling, all this–if you’re unsympathetic–self-pity, all this failure of Boethian values, betrayed by Arcite’s lack of steadfastness and his doubleness, all this will be destroyed, as we must realize when Anelida reminds us when she vows sacrifice to Mars. Her sacrifice is a summons that reverses emotional foreground and historical background.

We end, in short, with the coming of the zombies.

This doesn’t mean that Anelida’s feelings don’t matter. They do, but–or and–her agony will be ended by another agony, far more deadly than the disease of a bad romance that “craumpyssheth her lymes crokedly” (Anel 171 ; bends her limbs crookedly). Anelida’s love is love in the time of zombies.

And, for us, amid the catastrophe of climate change and mass extinctions, we’re also loving in zombie time. Our love matters. Our own familial pains matter. They do, I’m sure of it, even if we’re about to be scoured away by a catastrophe so much bigger than, or so different from, any of our small griefs.

(apologies if someone’s already made this argument. I couldn’t know less about Anel criticism)

Feeding the Dogs

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Images by Saiman Chow. Source, without words.

Ryan Judkins reminds me that:

during the curee, the dogs were usually fed on the innards of the deer, including the stomach, lungs (if they be hot) and the intestines, after they’d been washed, usually chopped up and all mixed together with blood and bread.

How to Make a Human talks about this too:

Humans’ mastery over their hunting animals is even more apparent in techniques that prevented dogs from killing or freely eating the prey. Dogs were allowed to slow, harry, and corner prey, while humans were meant to deliver the killing blow. Hunting rules required that the field butchery reserve a portion of the prey for the dogs, but they also required that the dogs eat only at their master’s command. In practical terms, the restrictions preserved the bulk of the carcass for the human hunters while ensuring that the dogs received the positive reinforcement of a reward. At the same time, to restrict dogs’ actions in hunting, restrain them from the kill, and permit them to eat only with human permission ensured that neither the dogs’ violence nor their necessity to human hunting might call human mastery into question. The ritual protection of human mastery encompassed even carrion birds, which were left the scraps from the carcass; as the Middle English Tristrem puts it, “þe rauen he 3aue his Ʒiftes, / Sat on þe fourched tre” (to the raven he gave his gifts, and set them on the forked branch; 502–3). The ravens now became beneficiaries of the hunters’ largesse, their appetite appropriated by a ritual that indicates that the control not only of violence but also of meat-eating concerned humans (64-65).

Judkins’ forthcoming JEGP article on the royal hunt stresses the community around the breaking of the deer carcass, in which servants and colleagues, whether human or animal, receive their due. More and more, I’m slipping away from my strong paranoid reading of human mastery (see above!) and sliding towards readings like Judkins’, which consider affects other than anxiety and cruelty. Love, familiarity, conscientious attention to particular appetites, shared joy: these matter too.
This isn’t something as simple as a switch from negative to positive affect. Things are more complicated. Think of this brief encounter in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation:

Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he hold me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me. Then he got all red in the face (103).

Grandin aptly calls this section “How to Make a Pig Fall in Love.” Like all love, things can go awry. Our face might go red, maybe because the pig doesn’t love us anymore, or maybe because we’re a bit embarrassed. When intimacies that can hardly be named find their way into the public eye, things can be a bit disgusting or embarrassing for the guardians of human exclusivity. For more on love’s weirdness, see my post below, and also see Dominic Pettman’s Human Error77-101, which discusses the films Zoo and Tierische Liebe (Animal Love) as well as Haraway’s dog love in When Species Meet and J. A. Baker’s The Peregine to track love’s strangeness, how it can entail, don’t forget, “monomania, projective narcissism, and so on,” a “familiar libidinal economy, involving the kind of struggles around difference and recognition that can lead to passive-aggressive sulking because of perceived miscommunication” (95).
I have this in mind because I’ve just read Kathy Rudy’s Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy. Rudy, a dog lover, says that “the task of coming out as gay was a piece of cake compared to coming out as–what?” She observes “there is not an adequate name for the kind of life I lead, the way my desires organize themselves around animals, especially dogs” (35), that “it’s not so much that I am no longer a lesbian…it’s that the binary of gay and straight no longer has anything to do with me. My preference these days is canine” (41). For more on this kind of love, we might look to “Michael Field” and their love for and through Whym Chow: perhaps start here and here.
Rudy cooks for her dogs. One loves any kind of meat, another needs a lot more food than you’d think to look at her, and another, Duncan, a yellow lab mix, goes nuts for oatmeal and scrambled eggs (when I told my wife, Alison, about this, she cried “he’s a breakfast dog!”). Rudy’s learned a lot more about her dogs by feeding them; it’s another way to “talk” to the dogs, to build affection and knowledge, another way to render “their subjectivity more visible” (184). She’s made a better love between them, which is to say, this queer animal lover is making love to them in a new, better way.
Feeding animals, eating with them–as Cuthbert did with his horse, you remember–makes us companions, a word Haraway often uses in When Species Meet. And companionship can be very intimate indeed. The scholar of How to Make a Human would claim that this is just bad faith: after all, look at Chaucer’s Prioress, so deeply sad about her dogs and mice, but still happy to feed her dogs roast meat. Charity begins and ends at home, says the old me. The scholar I am now isn’t so sure, and Rudy’s partially to thank for that. Because becoming companions (or concarnians, as I say in AVMEO) with animals might mean something’s not quite clicked with your human relations. It isn’t just hypocritical humanism. To be sure, animal companionship isn’t necessarily a better love; it’s just, perhaps, a love that disorients you from the community of humans. It’s a weird love, like any love, but weirder than most because it lacks the veneer of (human) normalcy.
After all, isn’t the Prioress a bit camp, what with her silly romance name, her (arguably) bad French accent, her fancy wimple, by which I mean, aren’t the Prioress and her dogs a bit queer?
I have in mind dog-feedings, like the one Judkins describes above. Or Yvain and his lion sharing meals when the lion may be the only one who knows who Yvain really is. Or even the willingness among the philosophers (of all people, generally the most obstinately human)–Albert the Great, Thomas of Cantimpré, Vincent of Beauvais–to repeat Pliny’s observation that certain cuts of deer meat disgust dogs, unless (as Vincent says), they’re especially hungry. Or Richard Wyche’s fifteenth-century account of his religious persecution, where amid his tortures, he “asked the bishop to have my horse taken to his stable, and I gave what I had in my purse to the man leading it there” (trans. Christopher G. Bradley, PMLA 127.3 (2012): 630 [626-42]). Yes, Richard asks this because the horse, a special kind of transportation machine, needs sustenance, but I have to think he asks also because he likes his horse, and he, a religious man (of all people &c.), remembers it, even with execution looming, with nothing mattering for eternity, we would think, but his imperiled soul.
So the shared affect of a meals draws my attention. The love the hunters and the dogs share matters, even as we must not forget the dismembered carcass of the deer around which this affect clusters.
One more thought on the queer love of dogs: if this particular project continues (and it could, if someone’s looking for a Kalamazoo paper to fill a slot?), think of the stories of knights who love hunting and disdain the love of women…until they’re forced to grow up. Guigemar, for example, but we could come up with dozens more. Think of how queer that love is, particularly when read with the compulsory erotics whose force draws the knight out of his pleasures with his horses, hounds, and hawks, and into his human, only human maturity.
(for more stuff on zoophilia, see James Goebel’s excellent musings over at “A Geology of Borders”)

A Fourteenth-Century Ecology: Chaucer’s “The Former Age”

MS Douce 195

“The question of ecological morality is always approached as if it were a matter of authorizing or prohibiting an extension of the moral quality to new beings (animals, rivers, glaciers, or oceans), whereas exactly the opposite is the case. What we should find amazing are the strange operations whereby we have constantly restricted the list of beings to whose appeal we should have been able to respond.”

Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour, “Morality or Moralism: An Exercise in Sensitization.”

Five weeks ago, I had hoped to put Chaucer’s “The Former Age” in conversation with the Alexander and Dindimus tradition and with fourteenth-century reactions to the European encounter with the Canary Islanders. 6000 words (my utmost limit) is not enough, and I had to drop the Canary Islands. No worries! Soon I hope to have something to say here about The Canarien, a bizarre early fifteenth-century chronicle of an attempted conquest (briefly: it gilds a vulgar chain of squabbles, failures, and slaving with the glory of chivalry and faith: the effect is grotesque and grimly hilarious, like a drunk senior research analyst in a disheveled clown suit). Meanwhile, here’s a portion of the argument that, knock on wood (but gently, gently), will see print sometime next year.

If you don’t know “The Former Age,” it’s structurally and thematically based on Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy Book II, Meter 5 and a handful of other works. It describes a time when people were free of commerce, agriculture, or technology: they do not harvest grain, for example, but rather rub the kernels between their hands (l. 11). They’re vegetarian communists who refuse to harm anyone or anything: not each other, not animals, not the earth or the sea, not wounded by the plow (l. 9) or carved by the prow (l. 21).

Criticism of “The Former Age” typically does souce or historical studies, the latter tending to see the poem’s pessimism as a symptom of the politics of the late 1380s or early 1390s. That’s fine. However, I’m reading the poem as a critique not only of human institutions but of the human itself. In sum, I read it as an antihumanist manifesto in the vein of Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour’s wonderful “Morality or Moralism.” I do this by attending, especially, to the former agers’ unlimited moral sensitivity but also to Chaucer’s additions to his sources, and its affinities with a thematically related set of texts, the British witnesses to the encounter between Alexander the Great and the ascetic philosophers of India, the Gymnosophists and Dindimus and the Brahmans. I plan to talk about this Dindimus material in another post.

Chaucer’s few additions include a few animal comparisons and his despairing final stanza, which bemoans that the world is now full of lust, deceit, and murder, with no way out. Lines 7 and 37 in effect say that these people eat like pigs: “They eten mast, hawes, and swich pounage”; “noght but mast or apples is therinne.” Golden Age people eat acorns: this is a cliché, mocked from Cicero to Petrarch, and sneered at by Lucretius, who says that primordial people traded acorns for sex. The pig-comparison’s unusual, though, at least in the Golden Age tradition. In my book, I read this as a humiliating contrapasso against people who don’t eat pigs: eat pork or be treated like pork. In medieval Christian texts, this happens to Jews, Muslims, and now to these vegetarians, who, like pigs, eat “mast, hawes, and swich pounage” in the woods rather than enjoying the products of the grange.

The other animal comparison comes in line 50, where Chaucer calls these people lambish. Perhaps not alarming, until you remember that for a dozen years Chaucer oversaw the wool custom and wool subsidy for the Port of London. In this time, few English were more involved in the sheep trade: worthy is the lamb &c. Note too that one of the witnesses of “The Former Age” traveled with Lydgate’s “Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,” a poem that the ram wins by arguing, in effect, that English industry commercializes every bit of the sheep, its fleece, meat, horn, hooves, and skin (here I think of Upton Sinclair’s “they use everything of the pig except the squeal”).

And then there’s the despair of the last stanza, Chaucer’s longest addition. Taken as a whole, “The Former Age” imagines a time without human domination, a time whose people recognize the constitutive vulnerability of everything as morally significant (see Derrida on the “nonpower at the heart of power” in The Animal that Therefore I am); a time whose people saw the face (in a Levinasian sense) everywhere and acted accordingly. “The Former Age” imagines this time, and admires these people, sure, but it also chooses to think of them as animals, there to be used and traded; and it chooses to imagine this time as irrevocably lost.

But Chaucer’s other so-called Boethian poems (“Truth,” “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” and “Gentilesse”) hope for something better. Why not this poem too? I read it as written in a voice unequal to its subject, a voice that cannot give up on human privileges (Nicola Masciandaro and Gillian Rudd have also read the poem’s voice suspiciously). I see the failure of the poem’s voice as indirectly asking us to do better, to try harder to get past the despair and sad domination of being human. Unlike the poetic voice, we readers, hoping better, can use this supposedly lost past to get at another future (infinite citations here, but Piotr Gwiazda’s Former Age article, which uses Ernst Bloch, is more than good enough).

Yet there’s another lesson. What would a life without human privileges look like? Without clear distinctions between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, vulnerability and breakability? One that took, say, the lessons of Vibrant Matter much further than Jane Bennett was willing to go, that allowed itself to know how enmeshed we are in everything (think Morton), that responded with the utmost sensivity to anything, as Hache and Latour might have us do?

Frankly, it would be kind of awful. These people don’t eat half enough (l. 11); their food is scarce and thin (l. 36); and “no doun of fetheres ne no bleched shete / was kid to hem, but in seurtee they slepte” (ll. 45-6): the but sets their safety against their discomfort. Choose one or the other. Here we see what it may mean to open moral consideration to all, to attempt to live without harm, without the certainty of any distinction between subject and object, human and animal, nature and culture, flesh and the earth. It is a world of hungry and vulnerable people, intermeshed with and sympathetic to all. There is a kind of hope here, then, but—or and—it may be a hope that erases the human altogether.(image from Bodleian Library, MS Douce 195, 59v, via here)

Weekend Fun? Reading Alla’s Britoun Book

NORalbanLast week, I read the Man of Law’s Tale (hereafter MLT) for the second time (I think) and taught it for the first (I should say: I tried to teach it, since my students refused to leave the prologue alone: they love the Host, and they love the horizontal optative affiliations of the pilgrimage as a countermodel to the ‘natural’ English hierarchical communities of city or kingdom). Because I can’t leave well enough alone, and just because I’m hung up, I’m throwing myself into the breach again next Wednesday before moving us onto the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.

I’m hung up on the “Britoun book” of MLT 666. Some background: our heroine,

PaulineCustance, after having escaped Syria by washing ashore in Northumbria, is now wrongly accused of murdering Hermengyld, one of her (newly) Christian Northumbrian protectors. The actual murderer is of course a lascivious knight outraged by Custance’s virtue. In the relevant stanzas, Custance is on the verge of execution, when King Alla of Northumbria–astonishingly without feminine assistance–tries to find an out:

This Alla kyng hath swich compassioun,

As gentil herte is fulfild of pitee,

That from his eyen ran the water doun.

“Now hastily do fecche a book,” quod he,

“And if this knyght wol sweren how that she

This womman slow, yet wol we us avyse

Whom that we wole that shal been oure justise.”

A britoun book, written with evaungiles,

Was fet, and on this book he swoor anoon

She gilty was, and in the meene whiles

An hand hym smoot upon the nekke-boon,

That doun he fil atones as a stoon,

And bothe his eyen broste out of his face

In sighte of every body in that place. (II.659-672)

Now, I’m not a Chaucerian, and, once again, I’m new to MLT, and I haven’t read all that Kathy Lavezzo has to say on it, and for the life of me I can’t recall the substance of Mary Kate’s Kzoo 2007 paper on MLT and Bede (that right?), so take the following claims cum grano salis: the Chaucer Bibliography Online doesn’t suggest that there’s a lot on the Britoun Book, and neither do searches on Google Books and eBrary (which includes JJC’s Medieval Identity Machines and Heng’s Empire of Magic): there’s a bit on it in Elizabeth Robertson’s essay on “Nonviolent Christianity” here and in Patricia Clare Ingham on “Contrapunctal Histories” here and a fair amount of attention on it in Don-John Dugas’s “The Legitimization of Royal Power in Chaucer’s ’Man of Law’s Tale’” (Modern Philology 95 (1997): 27-43). Despite the onrush of postcolonial criticism on MLT (by Dinshaw, Susan Schibanoff, Kathryn Lynch, &c.), it seems that the “Britoun book” hasn’t been gummed to death yet by Chaucerians.

Let’s commence gumming, then. Here are the peculiarities: if you don’t know MLT, Custance had been sent to Syria by her father, the Emperor of Rome, to marry its Sultan; to secure the marriage, the Sultan converts from Islam to Christianity, and is promptly martyred (with all his allies) by his vengeful and pious mother. Thus Custance arrives in Northumbria from a (very temporarily) Christian East. Northumbria itself is largely pagan, although pockets of Christians survive here and there in “privetee” (II.548), but especially in Wales (II.544). Alla himself converts to Christianity only after the miracle in II.668-72. As Lavezzo (and I’m sure others) have observed, Alla’s name necessarily recalls Allah. How can we read this scene of Christianity and conversion and swearing? How should we understand the “Britoun book,” which might remind you of another “certain very ancient book written in the British language” as much as it reminds you of a certain Biblical story?

I have tentatively proposed understanding the book as an element in a systematic (and all too obvious) effacement of the Eastern origins of Christianity.

  • Bear in mind that the Man of Law complains that the stars “hurlest al from est til occident / that naturelly wolde holde another way” (II.297-8), which contradicts not only Ptolemy (who says stars move East to West) but also a gloss in Hengwrt and Ellesmere that reads “semper ab Oriente in Occidentem” (cited in Lynch “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy : East and West in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale.” Chaucer Review 33: 409-22, at 416): faced with evidence that light routinely comes out of the East, the ML distorts the scientific evidence, and is called out on it by the glosses themselves!
  • What Christianity there had been in the East appears only to be almost immediately extirpated at its root; later, the Roman Christians massacre the remaining Syrians (II.960-967), as if salting the Earth from which Christianity sprung;
  • Alla should also be heard as Allah: I’m not sure what to make of this except to suggest that it relocates “Allah” from the East to West, converts him to Christianity, and shows him in possession of a Gospel book written in…Welsh?
  • the roots of English Christianity either come directly from Rome (in the form of Custance) or go even deeper, back into Wales, the site of Britain’s primordial past, the place (and the place of the language) that signals its earliest days

Admittedly, this is not much to go on, but it’s the beginning of a reading I hope to push a bit further in class on Wednesday.

What have you done with these stanzas? What has been done that I’m missing? And, if you’ve picked up anything from this discussion, what would you do with them now? Edit: And, if it strikes you, how could I engage such a reading with gender?

Theseus is no fraud, or, Thank You Paul Auster!

There was a pattern in my students’ papers on The Knight’s Tale. Those who had read the Mark Sherman chapter, “Chivalry,” in the Oxford Chaucer Guide accused the whole chivalric class of fraud. Pretending to be the embodiments of high culture, pretending to be motivated by love, they were instead only bloodthirsty warriors; the Temple of Mars and the malignance of Saturn are the truth of knighthood; and so forth. I’m sympathetic to this view, and, because of my teaching, even responsible: my tribe, being suspicious of political power, is necessarily suspicious of Theseus, and loves to call him out as much for his mistaken reverence for the ineffectual Jupiter (I.2442) as for the tyranny of an Athenian parliament (I.2970) where Theseus does all the talking. I try, perhaps not very well, to tell them that my criticism is a phase, like any other phase, and that they may want to dip in other critical waters, or–to extend the metaphor–open a new canel. Perhaps it is time for we beautiful souls (plural of “yafeh nefesh” please?) to subject Theseus to a Chávezista or neocon interpretation, one suitable for our decade?

I’ve said only a bit of this in class; instead, I argued for the inextricability of chivalric culture from chivalric violence, and I thought, secretly (but perhaps not so secretly now), that the accusations of cultural fraud against knights is simultaneously cynical–“oh, those knights. they were really just stinky, illiterate, nasty types” (I think I have the right Pinkwater here)–and deeply sentimental (“true culture is elsewhere, with us beautiful souls, who don’t kill anyone”). I’d like to push matters a little bit further, so, with that in mind, tomorrow night, I will distribute to them a photocopy of Paul Auster’s stunning new translation of Bertran de Born’s most famous poem, which appears in the March 9, 2009 issue of The Nation. If you subscribe, great! But since the entire poem is accessible only to subscribers, I think I’d be violating something by quoting it in full. Our nonsubscribing academic readers, however, should have online access to it through their libraries; as for the others, my apologies: perhaps write to Auster directly. Here’s what The Nation provides for free:

I love the jubilance of springtime
When leaves and flowers burgeon forth,
And I exult in the mirth of bird songs
Resounding through the woods;
And I relish seeing the meadows
Adorned with tents and pavilions;
And great is my happiness
When the fields are packed
With armored knights and horses.And I thrill at the sight of scouts
Forcing men and women to flee with their belongings;
And gladness fills me when they are chased
By a dense throng of armed men;
And my heart soars
When I behold mighty castles under siege
As their ramparts crumble and collapse
With troops massed at the edge of the moat
And strong, solid barriers
Hemming in the target on all sides.

And, skipping a big chunk, here are the last two stanzas:

I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Give me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of “Charge!” from both sides, and hearing
Cries of “Help! Help!,” and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.Barons, better to pawn
Your castles, towns, and cities
Than to give up making war.

Now, this whole post is essentially an excuse to direct your attention to what strikes me as a supurb, timely translation. For my students, I trust they’ll understand, after reading this, that chivalric culture is–for better or worse–no fraud.