A Note on Symkyn’s Nose

bruegel1I taught as much of the Reeve’s Tale as I could yesterday, but I must take it up again on Wednesday: for the extended discussion, I offer thanks, first, to the inspiration from the ill wind in Holly Crocker’s Comment in this thread, where she characterizes the Reeve’s Tale as “one of the ugliest pieces of literature in my scholarly ambit,” and secondly, to my students’ excellent questions: e.g., “there’s a warning to turn the page in the Miller’s Prologue. The Reeve’s Prologue has no such warning. But the Miller’s Tale is a lot less ugly than the Reeve’s Tale. What’s going on?”

Because I can’t wait for Wednesday, here’s some (minor!) material I couldn’t get to yesterday.

We all know that the Reeve’s Miller, Symkyn, aspires to be something more than a churl. Symkyn is in fact slightly better than Oswald himself at playing the clerk: after all, Oswald’s sermon on old age is as notable for its incoherence as for its biliousness, whereas for all Symkyn’s contempt for clerks, he’s the only one in the tale who evidences any knowledge of contemporary currents of academic philosophy (“Myn hous is streit, but ye han lerned art. / Ye konne by argumentes make a place / A myle brood of twenty foot of space” (see William F. Woods, “Symkyn’s Place in the Reeve’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 39.1 (2004) 17-40). It’s like someone in my family–not academics, not readers, unless one counts the Bible and assorted devotional guides–one day snapping at me, “You’re the poststructuralist: you should know it’s impossible!”

But clerkdom is the least of his desires: you know Symkyn’s chief goal is to claim gentility, through his wealth, through his personal arsenal (which, as a figure of excess, is Robyn the Miller’s wart in blade form), and, like any good gentil, by erotic alliances: he married the Parson’s bastard daughter and hopes to marry poor Malyne, and himself through her, up past churldom.

Symkyn has problems, however, not least among them his name (in the following points I may have been anticipated: see #172). As a familiar form of Simon, it of course recalls simony (admittedly in a loose form): like his father-in-law, he is wasting the substance by which he should be nourishing the community. As morally dissolute as this is, it’s not so bad: after all, it’s through ‘simony’ that he hopes to transform his little place into an infinite realm (again, my thanks to the excellent Woods article cited above). But the name’s also a learned pun on two other counts.

First, it recalls the Latin simius or simia, ape, surely (barring the pig) the most churlish of animals, and the animal most suited for accusing churls of mere mimicry. In its uncanniness, mimicry of course has its powers of destabilization (e.g., Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” Location of Culture Chapter 4), but whatever its powers, there’s no compliment meant. Here we have, for example, a charge of inauthenticity through the implicit comparison between Symkyn’s finery (“as eny pecok he was proud and gay”) with the Squire’s. And so forth.

Second, the Latin for snub-nose is simus (for this point, thanks to John M. Steadman, “Simkin’s Camus Nose: A Latin Pun in the Reeve’s Tale?,” Modern Language Notes 75.1 (1960): 4-8). Symkyn’s “camuse” nose (3934) and Malyne’s “kamuse” (3974) of course recall the wide “nosethirles” (557) of Robyn the Miller. But if Steadman’s correct–and why not?–we also have a pun. We should note that because the pun’s based on rather obscure Latin (where “obscure” = vocabulary I don’t know off-hand), it’s one that only the learned would recognize. Whatever tidbits of clerical learning he’s picked up, Symkyn himself would not be in on the joke. Only clerical readers–almost a pleonasm, and certainly a group that includes us–would know that he cannot escape his class, since his name and face are linked in an otherwise secret sign of his peasantness about which he would be totally ignorant. Whatever he is, he must be. It’s written on his face: anatomy is destiny!


Chaucerian Chromophobia? Beige Hengwrts and Bawdy Ellesmeres

Screenshot-Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile - Mozilla FirefoxI thank Michael Moon’s “Do You Smoke? Or, Is There Life? After Sex?” in After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory (SAQ Summer 2007) for its reference to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, a work that argues that:

The love of bright hues is an affliction as well as an alleged moral failing that has been routinely ascribed throughout the modern period to “orientals,” sensuous women, children, and “primitives” of “all stripes”…(Moon, 540)

I haven’t (yet?) read Chromophobia, but I like what I know about it (e.g., his observations on the privilege of drawing over coloring in), and in my gleanings from here and there, I’ve been happy to turn up gemlike prejudices from our foundational thinkers. Aristotle called color a “pharmakon” (31), Isaiah 1:18 aligns color with sin and whiteness with purity, and Goethe observed

that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence (qtd 112).

I now have that feeling that I contract from some of my favorites works, suspicion coalesced into a master thesis. Call it paranoid desublimation. With Batchelor lodged in my brain, I compare the dangerous passion of the Big Orange Splot to the rational, calm, beige futurity of Swedish design (see the interiors in Scenes from a Marriage, or, if you’re an Ikeatiste, just look around).

I also consider the preference for the Hengwrt manuscript over the Ellesmere. At this point, and perhaps at all future points, I’ve only a hunch, a hunch, moreover, that’s not been validated by sprints through (only) three articles (the Linne Mooney Adam Pinkhurst piece in the Jan 2007 Speculum, Michael C. Seymour’s “Hypothesis, Hyperbole, and the Hengwrt Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales,” English Studies 68 (1987): 214-19, and Ralph Hanna’s “The Hengwrt Manuscript and the Canon of the Canterbury Tales), a hunch that has been validated, if we can call it that, only by a highly suspicious reading of Peter G. Beidler’s characterization of the differences between Hengwrt and Ellesmere (“…the Hengwrt manuscript, the oldest and most authentic” vs. “the lovely Ellesmere manuscript” (29)), by the predilection for the adjective “lavish” when describing Ellesmere, and by ill-remembered, misconstrued, or invented conversations and gestures from conferences, seminars, and, probably, clambakes.

Nevertheless: is it possible that the preference for Hengwrt over Ellesmere, even when expressed with hierophantic jargon of the codicologist, is fundamentally a preference for cool reason over vivid pleasures, pure judgment of the Aesopian body of one manuscript over the all too obvious lavish enticements of another? Are leading questions a valid substitute for research into critical discourse? By all means, no, but if I can’t offer my suspicions on a blog, how can I get them out of my head?

Thanks for the image, from here.


Jeffrey, thanks for the Fradenburg: I’m glad you had that thought at hand, and I’m glad to see that she wrote that (given that at times I think her such a psychoanalytic critic that I would expect her always to turn suspiciously on her pleasure). I remembered that I had quoted some relevant stuff here from my own work (from the written portion of my comprehensive exam!) (also see the conversation about creative writing here): so, right, I wrote:

“If we read Sir Gawain and ignore the Prick of Conscience except, perhaps, as it helps illuminate our favorite poems, we are not scholars: we are dilettantes. It is up to you to find ways to make these texts interesting, but you won’t succeed in this by attending to startling rhymes, unusual vocabulary, or any of these other purely aesthetic criteria. And if you were looking for these things in these texts, I doubt you would be successful. You may think I am arguing that scholarship requires you to suffer, but I would say that if you are bored by these works, the fault is probably yours because you don’t yet know how to read them. Scholarship—-and this is an ethical imperative—-requires that you try to apprehend cultures on their own particular historically, culturally, and materially specific terms and that as you read, as you think, you bring your own assumptions and categories under examination continuously.”

I think what saves the c. 2002 me here is the turn back to pleasure, how–if I can gloss my own work–I try to link ethics and pleasure, that in trying to recover why these terribly long, terribly alien works–the Cursor Mundi, Prick of Conscience, the Secretum Secretorum, the Wycliffite Bible(s)–should have been so popular, we might recognize ourselves as having arrived at a goal when we begin to enjoy them, when we affectively, unconsciously, account for their popularity. When we might feel the pleasure–sublimated or not–that drove so many hundreds of households to want their own Prick of Conscience.

Which is to say: it’s usual to discover the pleasure in sacrifice, but, less suspiciously, I wouldn’t doubt if Blake (and thanks Stephanie for the reminder) somehow liked chucking the Canon Yeoman’s tale.

[and, BTW, am I the only one who’s heard the story of Manly and Rickert as a story of sublimated, frustrated, peculiar pleasure, sex turned (in)to the war effort and scholarship, uncannily moving on despite death?] –

Found another one, also in the Beidler WoB edition: “Many scholars now see even the lovely Ellesmere manuscript, copied by the Hengwrt scribe and arranged by a highly intelligent editor, as a distraction rather than an aid in understanding Chaucer” (91).

I just need about 20-30 more of these, and Chaucer Review here I come! –
See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2008/02/chaucerian-chromophobia-beige-hengwrts.html#sthash.I5iw3JJK.dpuf

Is it wrong to spurn the gifts of nature?

I’ve been out of blogging for weeks now, self-pityingly swamped under the TT job that the current market demands I experience with gratitude or, at least, stoicism (edit: which is not to say that the BC job sucks. It doesn’t. My complaint is with the market itself and with the insidious nexus of deferred pleasure, the pleasures of stoicism, and reward). Here I dip in my 5 toes (holding 5 in reserve), having read through the recent posts on time, desire, and disaggregation by Eileen, Jeffrey, and Mary Kate, and having nearly finished the Kłosowska that all of us seem to be reading. I have, however, only a few questions for you, one of which I’m posting now. You must wait, perhaps forever, for my longer posts, one on the conservativism of students (why oh why do they resist understanding Pearl as oneiric sexual harassment? why do they demand the Nebuchadnezzar of the opening chapters of Daniel be the same person throughout, a mere character, rather than a shifting set of differing narrative machines?: have I just written my post?), and another on Karma Lochrie speaking, as last Saturday I saw Karma Lochrie speaking at my alma/amara mater, and my wondering about thinking with the “not present” as a way to circumvent or, better yet, to overflow the impasse of Reproductive Futurity.

Below, Eileen quoted Schultz quoting Boccaccio commenting on Dante’s placement of Priscian among the sodomites:

Dante put him there “to represent those who teach his doctrine, since the majority of them are believed to be tainted with that evil. For most of their students are young; and being young, are timorous and obey both the proper and the improper demands of their teacher. And because the students are so accessible, it is believed that the teachers often fall into this sin.”

In moral literature of (at least) the late Middle Ages, certain ages have certain appropriate or, rather, expected sins. Young people–Chaucer’s Squire, for instance–are expected to be lusty; and the old are expected to be backbiting and envious, likely because of their impotence (as one lyric runs, “Elde makiþ me geld and growen al grai (Old age makes me impotent (literally: castrate) and all grey)). This raises two questions: the first is whether the potent leeky old man (“hoor head and grene tayl”) would be monstrous or even queer because of its possession of a working cock it should not have: any medieval examples spring to mind? Is the lusty old man almost always an incestuous father?

The second, which drove me to this question in the first place, is on the naturalness of this desire for boys. Which, by the way Interpol, I am not endorsing. This is, Interpol, an academic question. Young women are presented as naturally desirable; old women as repugnant. Think of the Wife of Bath’s tale, where the possibility of marrying the old wyf shocks the rapist (and presumably the Wife’s audience, themselves faced with the desires–and desirability–of an older woman) into horror.

Are young boys, then, also naturally desirable? If the sin is expected, is Priscian’s crime not running against nature but rather not resisting nature by compelling himself into desiring the (im)proper object? I think of 4 Macabees, which I just taught, in which the tyrant Antiochus demands that Eleazar eat pork: he doesn’t demand that Eleazar sin or spurn God. He demands only this: “Why, when nature has granted it to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal? It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature” (4 Maccabees 5:8-9). My point, my little point for now, is this: Eleazar’s virtue is precisely his unnaturalness, and Priscian’s crime is being altogether too natural. In this, where do we locate the properly sexual?


JJC: what differentiates Chaucer’s senex amans from the frightening senex amans I imagine is their incapacity. They’re not entirely buffoons, no, but they’re still more victims (of age, of circumstance, of clerkly learning, and chiefly of their own desire) more than they’re actors. When the desiring old man is himself the actor, I’m inclined to think that the story falls into violence, revenge, or perhaps more often than not, incest. I think of The Testament of Cresseid, where in my understanding of the poem the impotent reader inflicts leprosy on the beautiful woman he alone cannot have; and I think of the Constance story, as in Emaré, where it seems the father fixates on the quality in his child that he himself has lost, her freshness (“Dowghtyr, y woll wedde the, / Thow art so fresh to beholde”).

Thanks much for the comments on Chaucer and their particularity and correction of my transhistorical noodling; “Chaucer gained from his wide reading many glimpses of human sexuality constructed and practiced otherwise than the ways in which his London practiced it” sounds like it can be very productive.

SH: thanks for the RR reference. There’s something similar in Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (ed. Anne Hudson), in the third of the “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards”: þe thirdde conclusion sorwful to here is þat þe lawe of continence annexyd to presthod, þat in preiudys [prejudice] of wimmen was first ordeynid, inducith sodomie al holy chirche.” Is the argument here that samesex sex is more desirable? Or that it’s in some way “natural”? I don’t think so; it’s more that men must have sex, and when forbidden women, they will have sex with men. The desire is natural, even if the object becomes the object only through an artificial constraint. Nonetheless, it, like the RR, puts the natural under question, which is, I suppose, what I was hoping to get at in the first place.

Which point leads me finally into the nice distinctions NM draws, but I still must wonder about this: “the unnaturalness of human nature.” I wonder if imagining sex through technological metaphors–that is, cultural precisely not natural metaphors–is a way to sidestep this problem of the natural – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/10/is-it-wrong-to-spurn-gifts-of-nature.html#sthash.crkUBfHN.dpuf

“Free and Open at Eyther Ende,” or Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

gusbig(Image from here: Strange but Trewe)

I stumbled across an interpretation Tuesday in the course of teaching the Prioress’s Tale. As I said it, it sounded familiar to me, but I’ve gone through my notes with some fine teeth (mine) and haven’t been able to turn up anyone else who’s said it. So bear with me, read along, and if what I’m saying sounds familiar, please let me know.

It’s well-known that the ritual murder charge is often also one of anthropophagy. The late twelfth-century, and, it should be said, highly ironic chronicler Richard of Devizes records or invents a charge at Winchester in which an immigrant laborer disappears on Good Friday. His friend accuses a Jew of the crime with “isti unicum sodalem meum iugulavit, presumo etiam quod manducavit” (this man has cut the throat of my only friend, and I presume he has eaten him, too!). The chronicle of the monastery of Saint Peter of Gloucester writes that when Harold of Gloucester was murdered, he was (and here I quote at length because I can’t readily turn up any translations: so my quick and very dirty translation of this little bit might help scholars looking for a crib, or it might help you help me with that word “acellis,” since neither my Lewis and Short nor the online Du Cange want to cooperate: update thank you Nicola Masciandaro):

Nam tandam visum est medium duobus ignibus interpositum miserabiliter latera, tergum, nates, cum genibus, manibus, pedum quoque plantas torruerunt, defixas circa capitis ambitum spinas, et sub utrisque acellis, ardente quoque adipe veluti assatura carnis fieri solet guttatim in tota corporis superficie distillata…” (20-21)

For at last it was seen that he was been placed between two fires, and his flanks, back, buttocks, with his knees, hands, and the heels of his feet wretchedly roasted, and he had thorns wrapped around his head, and under each ACELLIS armpit, and just as if he had become roasted meat, blazing fat had been dripped drop-by-drop all over the surface of his body…

There’s also the narrative of the murder of Adam of Bristol, whose full and jaw-droppingly bizarre details I won’t go into here, just yet. In it, Samuel, the paternal head of a murderous Jewish family, refers to his victim, Adam, as “porcellum meum” (my little pig [which is strange: check my * below]). Samuel threatens to roast Adam by the fire rotisserie-style like a plump chicken (as Samuel says, “ego regirabo,” and adds “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”). Prior to the roasting, Samuel’s wife cuts off Adam’s nose and lips, using the knife customarily used to cut her bread (“cultello quo solebat incidere panem”). Moreover, the family plans the torments over a feast, so as the murderous family eats, it plans the disposal of the body that will be treated like edible flesh, that is, eventually deposited in a latrine and pissed on by Samuel.

It’s usual for the corpse in a ritual murder story to end up in such a place. This is what happens in the Prioress’s tale, where the Jews “in a wardrobe … hym threwe / Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille,” although, strictly speaking, the Prioress’s Tale is not a ritual murder: however much Satan swelled up and reminded the Jews that their law was being scorned, the murder seems to be occasioned by irritation rather than by ritual necessity. And there’s no anthropophagy (at this point, imagine an ominous foreshadowing noise here, perhaps with this famous moving image swelling up in your sight).

All of this is a kind of hors d’œuvre for what I promised in my first paragraph, namely, an interpretation of the shape of the Ghetto in the Prioress’s tale (see another aside below). Because the ghetto is “free and open at eyther ende,” the little clergeon can make his way through it, singing his Alma redemptoris the whole way until he meets his end. But, as I observed in my (8am!) class on Tuesday, he also meets the Jews’ end, because, after all, what else is open at both ends and ends in a latrine?

(if you need a hint, look at the photo above)

I’m sure it’s been said before that the Ghetto in the Prioress’s Tale functions as a kind of corpus Judaeorum. What does that get us in terms of interpretation? I’m not entirely sure yet. I’ll share with you what I told my students, but I don’t want to take this any further until I know I’m not just filling someone’s else’s footprints, compelled unwittingly to follow by the memory of their passage through the critical swamp (and I’ll end the metaphor here). We have witnessed anthropophagy, albeit in a disguised form, and indeed we’ll witness it (disguised) again, when the boy’s body processes through the town to the church in a kind of Corpus Christi parade, and when the Abbot takes the greyn, which, whatever it might be, necessarily recalls the Eucharist. We might, then, if we wanted to push at this reading, see the tale as referencing debates and exempla about the indomitable purity of the Eucharist even when it’s threatened with transformation into feces by the ritual of the Eucharist itself. But that’s perhaps rather too much. It’s much simpler to see the main street of the Jewerye (or Juerie) as an alimentary canal, and the Jewerye as the body of the Jews. As I said to my students, this approach heightens the logic of revenge: a Christian body that functions as the corpus Christianorum has been destroyed, so there’s a Jewish body destroyed in turn. The collective punishment is also the punishment of a single urban body. So, where to take this?

* Strange because there’s such an emphasis (dare I say slapstick emphasis) placed on Jewish food codes later in the story, after Samuel has murdered his family (who had the gall to apostatize) and fled to his sister’s house, both out of guilt and out of fear of the inconvenient angel standing guard over Adam’s body, that is, in the latrine. When several credulous Irish priests show up in Bristol, Samuel and his sister offer them lodgings, hoping to trick them into getting the boy’s holy corpse

out of the latrineaway from the angel. Here’s the conversation once Samuel’s sister offers the priests some food. Pardon my stilted translation:

“Quales carnes vultis habere ad edendum?” Cui sacerdos: “O domina, carnes porcinas.” Et illa: “Carnes porcine non sunt bone nec sane in hac urba, quia plene sunt lepra et commedunt stercora hominum in plateis. Set dabo vobis carnes bovinas, et .3es. gallinas crassas vobis et nobis.”

“What sort of meat do you wish to have to eat?” The priest replied, “O mistress, pork.” She said, “Pork isn’t good or healthy in this town, since it is measly/leprous and they [the pigs] eat human excrement in the street. But I will give you beef and three fat chickens for you and your retinue.”

Do and Die, and Faith in the Classroom

To acclimate myself to Brooklyn College, I’ve been sitting in on Nicola’s summer Canterbury Tales course and occasionally participating in class discussion. It’s been fun, not least of all because I feel like a spy (although Nicola introduced me on the first day, the students persist in handing me the attendance sheet. I’m sure they think I’m a pretentious brown-noser, or maybe the equivalent of a Parisian taking a French course for an easy A). Yesterday, Nicola did the Clerk’s Tale (here and here), one of several I know mainly by reputation (in other words, the course is also a chance for me to get a sense of this “Chaucer” you “medievalists” seem to know so well, since I’m a teaching a class on him in the Spring).

I immediately fixated on the ClT’s presentation of death and duty. In the prologue, the Clerk declares himself to be under the “yerde” of the Host, and then lists the other forces that condition, or to which he has submitted, his existence: “resoun,” “deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer,” and, implicitly, time, since he cuts short his representation of Petrarch’s prologue because it would be “a long thyng…to devyse.”

The other great “yerde” of the tale is of course Walter. Griselda didn’t ask to be thrust into marriage; and despite Walter’s formulaic rehearsal of the request for consent, her father, Junicula, has no more choice in the matter than his daughter. Walter must get what he wants. And the virtue of his subjects is not to wonder, and certainly not to reason why, but to tremble, “abayst and al quakynge,” and to submit patiently to whatever power desires, regardless or even because of its pointlessness. Eventually, as is proper, death and time take Griselda (“Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience”), but not before she has given up everything to become, in what is surely among Chaucer’s most chilling lines, “sad and constant as a wal.”

It struck me first that the tale’s engaged in something analogous to trauma envy (here inspired by the chapter on Tr. Envy in The Truth of Žižek). The Clerk more or less implicitly likens his submission before reason, death, time, and the game of tale-telling to Griselda’s submission and suffering. Simply in allowing himself to be snatched from his great pleasure of studying “aboute som sophyme” to tell the tale, the Clerk shows himself “constant in adversitee,” so modeling the first great moral lesson he extracts from his tale (“every wight, in his degree, / sholde be constant in adversitee / as was Grisilde). Thus the Clerk at least participates in the moral authority that Griselda gains by doing her duty.

The tale also naturalizes two great submissions, women to men and the poor to the rich. If submitting to arbitrary force as a woman and peasant is like the Clerk’s submission to death, reason, and time, the Clerk presents these great social injustices as simply the way things are. At the same time, the Clerk presents his own incapacity before death, time, &c., as akin to the minimal choice the Clerk has allowed Griselda: she might have protested, after all. If she had no choice, we could no more admire Griselda’s constancy than we admire the constancy of a wall. Go figure: given her class and gender, she doesn’t really have a choice, but any admiring response makes it seem as if she does. Thus the Clerk represents his own quakynge before death as a choice also, so clearing space for virtue in the midst of a great, meaningless necessity of mortal existence.

Pretty straightforward, no? I’m sure this reading has been done hundreds of times in the criticism, but, again, I’m not a Chaucerian (yet), so I don’t know. Now, I grabbed onto my thoughts on duty, and linked them to the godlike aspects of Walter: since Griselda surpasses Job in her patience, clearly Walter is structurally like God, or Satan, or both at once in their arbitrary, inaccessible grandeur. (Note that I don’t think this is an allegory, although the googles show me that it’s not that uncommon to see Griselda as the Bride of Christ and so forth). And then I leapt into Nicola’s conversation with his class, where I began to offer up some of what I set out above.

A funny thing happened. Once I brought divinity into the classroom, the students came out as Clerklike. While they don’t much care for Walter, they do admire Griselda, and they do think there’s virtue in patient endurance. And once they began to think of Walter as godlike, they began to want to like Walter a little more (Nicola may dispute this, but this is the sense I got). They didn’t feel that they understood him, but they began to think he had some kind of justification in testing his wife; indeed, they became convinced that he was testing his wife and not simply making her suffer in the way that all men do with patient wives (“wedded men ne knowe no mesure, / Whan that they fynde a pacient creature). In short, the students, at least the students who talked, think of God as a good thing.

This came as a surprise to me. I’m such an atheist–and, because of my reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing, a pretty intolerant atheist–that I would have thought that bringing God into the discussion would explode the whole complex of submission, virtue, death. So what I learned: some people think God is love (duh); when I teach the ClT, I’ll have to be careful to frame my material on duty and divine force to keep the students with me.