Gerald of Wales, Part 1: Place in the Topographia Hibernica

Douai Bibliotheque municipale 887, 52v


I had the fortune recently to be a keynote speaker at St John’s University Graduate English Conference, whose theme was “Working Through Environmental Unlikeness: Ecology and Nature in the Humanities.” Thanks to Steve Mentz for the invitation, thanks to the students and other organizers (including, I presume, Steve), for running such a fast (in all senses of the word) ship, and thanks and admiration especially to Jamie Skye Bianco, who shared a stage with me.

More later, I expect, but brunch calls. But so does Gerald of Wales. What had started as a paper about oysters turned into a paper about fish in the Topographia Hibernica, which then turned into something entirely different. Read on and see. Here’s the first half of my presentation, with the second half to follow in a couple days.

This is about place.

Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland is, essentially, a three-part twelfth-century advertisement to tempt potential English conquerors towards easier pickings than those offered by far-off Jerusalem. Medievalists have tended to focus their attention on its second and third parts, which concern Ireland’s wonders and its people. No wonder: this is where we find Gerald’s stories about the talking werewolves of Meath, the unfortunate cowboy of Wicklow — literally half man, half cow — and his mangled memory of an old Celtic coronation ritual that, in his version, sees the king first having sex with a horse, then bathing in a broth made of the horse’s meat, and then, finally, enjoying a well-earned kingship. Modern commentators tell us that it’s here where Gerald negotiates his own loyalties, divided between his Welsh and Anglo-Norman ancestry, at the expense of the bestialized Irish, who need a firm colonial hand to be brought in line with modernity.

Though these readings work, they leave the first part of the Topography mostly untouched. Again, no wonder: this is where we hear about Ireland itself and its mundane flora and fauna. If your interest’s in humans, or quasi humans, then there’s not much to do here, which is exactly why I’m not going to leave it alone. I’m starting, naturally enough, with the title.

Gerald’s own title for it, used in some manuscripts and, more importantly, in his own several references to it, is just the Topographia Hibernica, the Topography of Ireland, or just the Topographia, without the “History” that its English translators routinely append. That is, without that little human addition. Place is what Gerald thinks the work’s mainly about, not people; or, to put this differently, it’s about what’s there already, and only secondarily about what we do with it. And that’s the structure of the book, which, again, starts with Ireland’s position, its size, and the unevenness and moistness of its terrain.

The word “topographia” is a bit recherché, especially for a book not written in Greek, appearing, it seems, only 3 times in Latin prior to Gerald. Like other rare words, we shouldn’t just brush it aside. Split it up, and it literally means place/writing, topos + graphein. And to talk about writing is what saves this initial place in Gerald’s Topography from being a just a stable place holder for the human and other biotic activity that follows in books two and three. Do me the favor of imagining the inevitable, Derrida’s spectral presence in the background of what follows. Gerald’s writing about place, certainly, but place is also presented as writing, as something that’s there before us and that will outlast us. Ireland, Gerald tells us, has been peopled five or six times since the Flood, with most of these settlements falling to disease, miasmas, or the inevitable Vikings. When Gerald invites his king to conquer Ireland, he’s also promising Henry a possession that can’t be anything but temporary and precarious. Like any other.

So, this Irish place is no foundation for human activity. Again, it’s not a “place holder.” Perhaps on human time scales, certainly, but geologically speaking, no: Gerald’s Ireland is also on the move, and if we start by thinking with the land, as he does, we’ll see it: Ireland’s “nine principal rivers” that divide it are just a start: “many other rivers,” he remarks, are “new, and with regard to the ones mentioned, only recently emerged. They are not,however, smaller than the former, and only on the point of antiquity are they inferior” (O’Meara trans, 36). He identifies a “fantasticam” island somewhere in the Orkneys or Faroes, thronged with phantoms, which sinks whenever anyone comes near, and whose furtive movements stop only when some intrepid sailors frighten off the phantoms with fire (66-67). And though God had promised never to flood the world again for its wickedness, Gerald has God do just that to part of Ulster; the flood-lake is still there, ancient steeples visible in its depths (64-65). And, one more, Gerald wonders how islands in general come to be: sometime after the flood, they emerged, “not violently and suddenly, but little by little, and, as it were, by a washing away” (68) or, depending on how we translate, “by alluvial deposits” (Probabiliter tamen ad hoc dici potest longe post dilivium, terra multiplicatis iam animantibus ubique repleta, non violeter et subito, sed paulatim, et tanquam per eluvionem insulas natas fuisse). For Gerald, land has its own slow vulnerability to water or perhaps it’s a kind of coagulation of water’s flow, a slowing down of floods.

To finish off this opening presentation, I’m going to borrow Steve’s recent habit of ending his papers with a three-point summary or program.

  1. Land is liquid too. It’s a standard move in the so-called “new” materialisms to decry the dominance of the “linguistic turn” and to demand a revaluation of material stuff. My approach to the Topographia might look like that, but I want to stress that this is a materiality where the same weird instability of writing prevails. We’ve not left behind language, but recognized what Derrida could have told us anyhow, that the language/material division, like any other, works imperfectly. Since there’s no master signifier that’s going to stop the movement, Gerald gives us not some “back to the land” authenticity, but rather — to borrow still more from Steve — a “post-equilibrial” ecology, unstable and always on the move, where terrestrial solidity looks solid only if we use a human time scale.
  2. We’re also on the move. The Topographia often imagines what we might call spatial taxonomies. Ireland abounds in its own islands and sites that divide men from women, good from evil spirits, fish from, well, other fish. If we remember that Ireland is, like its people, always shifting, we know that these divisions are only temporary. We are all things of the moon, whose constant movement, Gerald tells us, “directs and controls not only the waves of the sea, but also the bone-marrow and brains in all living things as well as the sap of trees and plants” (O’Meara 59). Gerald’s strict divisions — gender, ethnicity, species — all of this is on the move.
  3. But place still matters. To say that everything’s temporary is not to say that things don’t really exist. Graham Harman makes what I hope is an obvious point, that things exist no matter their smallness or brevity. For Gerald, these things, temporary nodes in the always shifting field of stuff, have real effects. They are material practices, and these material practices determine who lives, who starves, who gets to live out their life on the land they think their own, and who has to submit to, flee, or be killed by the conqueror. Our frameworks, human or otherwise, matter too. Nothing lasts; everything’s liquid; but things still exist for all that.

Day 9 – Gerald of Wales

gerald and the goat and lion

We spent a lot of time talking about //postmedieval// Ecomaterialism, where nearly everyone read Trigg and Cohen on fire, and many read Mentz on air, and also Siewers on Earth. I can say more here when I have time, but if people want to get more into this and summarize some of their key ideas, do, please!

We talked about vacuums, about what counts as a “material” (fire, maybe, glaciers, maybe not), about the earth as both existence itself and something distinct, in an analog to nature itself (both the thing that constitutes something and the thing outside). When I talked about Steve Mentz, “‘Making the green one red’: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 13.3 (2013): 66-83, which I had read on the train to class, and about the sea being thought of as green in early modern thought, we got hung up, finally, on what classical Greek words for ‘blue’ might be, and the old debate about Homer’s Wine Dark Sea (for example).

For Gerald, I pointed out some other sources on the Irish and wonders well worth examining. Apart from Bishop Patrick of Dublin, there’s also material mentioned in the notes to the O’Meara translation, namely, the Irish translation of Nennius’s British history, 192-219, and the Irish wonder material in the Old Norse Kongs Skuggsjo, aka, the Speculum Regale (Meyer, Kuno. “The Irish Mirabilia in the Norse “Speculum Regale”.” Folklore 5.4 (1894): 299-316). The Meyer article argues from linguistic and orthographical evidence that the wonders can’t be from a written source, which suggests that the stories Gerald tells were circulating in Ireland more generally. That said, since the Kongs Skuggsjo postdates Gerald’s Topographia, it’s possible that Gerald may have been the ultimate source for these stories. You will want to read it for a number of reasons, chiefly, the werewolf lore, which differs quite a bit from Gerald’s story (and whose story of a vengeful saint recalls the origin story of the English tail), and for the men who go mad and flee into the woods (as in Merlin in the Vita Merliniand other, earlier sources) and there grow feathers (!! will need to check Meyer’s translation) and run along the trees as fast as squirrels (!).
I also pointed out two key manuscripts of Gerald’s Topographia, both of which are online, Dublin, National Library, MS 700 , and British Library,Royal MS 13.b.VIII, whose patterns of illustrations are basically the same, suggesting to some scholars that Gerald may be ultimately responsible in some way for the illustrations. We used Asa Mittman’s excellent early article on Gerald to observe how the Royal MS 13.b.VIII is particularly well-handled at the section about the woman who loved the goat (see above)

Our presentation of Gerald focused on Jeffrey Cohen’s work in his //Postcolonial Middle Ages// and his Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles. We heard about Gerald’s own attitudes towards his “marcher” identity, and his efforts to resolve his shared loyalties to Wales and the Angevin lords by demonizing the Irish and otherwise encouraging an invasion. We heard about how Gerald’s portrayal of Irish bestiality and Irish human/animal hybrids not only helps present the Irish as subhuman, but also helps Gerald think through his own conflicted Welsh/Norman loyalties. We developed some of Cohen’s points further: we wondered about the body as a spectacle for the public performance of truth, and how animals — nonlinguistic, sublinguistic, or otherly linguistic — function particularly well for this, both in Gerald and indeed in the fable tradition. We also wondered at the contradictions of the animal insult: though Gerald insults the Irish repeatedly through animal comparisons, he also tends to praise animals in general: so is being more natural, or more animal, a good thing or a bad thing?

I encouraged students to concentrate on Book I as much as possible. While the postcolonial readings of Gerald have been highly profitable (in the work of Cohen, Rhonda Knights, James Cain, and to a lesser degree Asa Mittman, for example), and while attention to Gerald’s wonders has, unsurprisingly, been especially popular, Book I has received very little critical love. An ecomaterialist approach, though, can correct that critical neglect. We were encouraged to look at how the presence of the land and climate already determines us to a large extent; we are always vulnerable, and existing at all, because of what is already there before us.

So, we read a few passages closely. We clarified that Gerald’s “East” is not “Eastern Ireland” but rather the “East,” as in Jerusalem and thereabouts. In this, he’s both discouraging Henry II from doing a crusade (notable, as our presenter observed, given that he would then go on a fundraising tour of Wales to raise money for a crusade, as recounted extensively in hisJourney through Wales and his Autobiogaphy), and also responding to the old traditions of writing about the Wonders of the East (as evidenced here) for example). You’ll also note that this map from Dublin, National Library, MS 700, 48r doesn’t go any further east than Sicily and Calabria (in the upper right-hand corner) and Theodosia (?) — Greece, anyway — in the upper left-hand corner. Gerald is, incidentally, part of an explosion of writing about the “Wonders of the West” that we see in the twelfth century: Gervase of Tilbury is but one of the several other writers who do this kind of thing.

We looked especially at the goat woman. We remarked on the assessment of the goat’s hair and horns, tam pilositate prelonga quam cornuum elatione suo in genere conspicuum in the text of the first recension. Is this an assessment of livestock? Is it admiration of a wonder? Is it aesthetic? Is it erotic? Of course one wants a goat with long hair and high horns, but why? This says something about the kind of desire Gerald’s trying to stir up in Henry II for Ireland, but it also says something about the non-innocence of admiration. We also looked at the “abuse” passages: in O’Meara’s translation, “The wretched woman…even submitted herself to his abuse” and “He was…created not for abuse but for proper use” (“Cui miserrima…ab abusum supponebat” and “licet tamen non ad abusum sed ad usum creata”). That difference between use and abuse is hard to maintain, of course, especially given what Gerald’s trying to stir up in Ireland. I tried and failed to connect this to usufruct in some way.

We looked at the badger and beaver of Book I: Gerald wonders at their having a kind of “peasant” class, where one animal is obligated to be loaded with materials and dragged about by others. Though Gerald says this is “wonderful,” of course, his own, human society would have been mostly peasants of some sort. What gives? Well, typically human thinking about animals homogenizes individual species: lions are noble, boars angry, sheep mild, foxes crafty, and so forth. This is what allows both bestiaries and fables to work as genres. But what happens when a species has class, when it has a culture, inequality, and so on? This is a wonder, perhaps. It certainly does something to how we think of animals.

mapFinally, we thought about the problem of life, first during Gerald’s discussion of the poisons of the east. O’Meara’s translation of the first recension, I.29, ends with “or, rather, among so many deaths, what life can there be?,” in Latin, “Vel potius, inter tot mortes, que vita,” which is the same text as in the 2nd recension. This led us first into a strange story from the 2nd recension (which has, apparently, been translated! a surprise to all of us), about an English pilgrim in Jerusalem, bitten by a snake, whose body at once, with its flesh and bones, was resolved into a formless mass like pitch (“statimque totum corpus eius, cum carnibus et ossibus, in massam quandam informen et quasi piceam est resolutum“), a figure of horror that at once suggests the shapeless stuff of the Real (in Zizek’s sense) and also the horrific element of Bennett’s “vibrant matter.”

We concluded by looking at “hibernating” birds I.16 and their similarity to von Uexküll’s famous tick. You’ll recall that Gerald, since he doesn’t know about migration, assumes that birds hibernate, and “in the interval, neither dead nor alive, they seem to continue living in their vital spirit and at the same time to be seized up into a long ecstasy and some middle state between life and death,” and so on. It’s likely that Gerald develops this idea from ursine hibernation, which in turn suggests the way that a bear cub, in its shapelessness at birth, is kind of indeterminately alive. We will need to do more with this question of life!

Having to Stretch, Having Room: A Voyage of Brendan Lesson

Valhalla Rising, to set the mood


“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.”

(Marx, Capital I.11, cadged from Malcolm Harris)

This semester, I’m teaching my first 3-hour, once-weekly class, an undergrad medieval comparative lit course. It runs from 6:30-9:10 every Monday, which I bisect with an optional but absolutely needed 15-minute break from roughly 7:45-8pm.

Three classes in and I’m loving it. It’s not just that I have to wind myself up to teach this stuff only once instead of twice a week (and we know, at least I do, the emotional effort required to step into a classroom); it’s what a long class does to my teaching.

For me and other talkers, a 75-minute class (or these thrice-weekly 50-minute classes I’ve heard rumor of) loves for me just to offload great blocks of ad-libbed information. And judging by my evals, this works. The letter arrives at some destination, if I’m just trying to convince my students that they’re getting what they think is an education and, even more so, if I want them to think I’m smart. But it’s obviously not our jobs to convince students that we deserve to be running the class.

Three hours of talking though? Doable, definitely, but far more obviously useless than in a regular-length class, or my name isn’t Karl “Increase Mather” Steel. Quantitative differences have forced me to flip my classroom. I’m following the scientists who are following humanities teaching.

Below, I’ll give you a map of the whole class. First, though, last night’s favorite bit.

I showed them the Wikipedia page on The Voyage of Saint Brendan and gave them five or ten minutes to read it (either from the screen up front or from their phones) and to write down one key thing the wikipedia page missed, and–if they had time–why this thing matters for understanding the text. If you don’t want to read the Wikipedia, because why?, it offers a very brief intro and then a 29-item list of the steps of the voyage. And that’s it.

Here’s a partial list of what the class turned up:

  • Birds are fallen angels, not just birds.
  • Interactions between the people – the kisses for example, or the bowing, or the conversation.
  • What Brendan thinks about Abbot Ailbe’s silence, which he thinks too severe for human nature to bear.
  • How Brendan lets God guide them to islands rather than travelling deliberately.
  • All the stuff about don’t worry, god will keep us safe: gryphon eg.
  • Jasconius: wikip doesn’t seem to understand that he is also the whale island.
  • Omits the size of the sheep – giant holy land sheep who never get milked.
  • Above all: the Psalms and the liturgy. Calendar and the solstice, Easter, Christmas.

What champs! We could have kept going for another 20 minutes on this. Now, I told them the obvious: they were being tested on whether they’d done the reading, and also being given a practical lesson in Wikipedian inadequacies. They got all this. But then I unpacked a fun fact: we have 120+ extant manuscripts of the Voyage of Brendan, and translations into most European vernaculars. And a lot of the translations, or really, adaptations, do exactly what the Wikipedia article does, namely, they hush up the religious element and turn up the adventure. See some of this for example. What does this say about continuities between medieval and modern readers?

Keep reading for the complete lesson plan. And if you’d rather just skip to comments, do that, and let me know your classroom flipping tricks, because frankly this old talker is new to all this…fun. Note that my class has only 24 students, which strikes me as perfect for a 300-level undergrad course.

The whole plan:

  1. As students come in, to set a mood, I played a long scene from Valhalla Rising of warriors drifting at sea, mostly mute, filthy, and lost in the fog;
  2. the medieval news: last week it was Richard III. This week it was the Pope’s resignation (helped along by showing them Bruce Holsinger’s blog) and then some Wonders of the East from the newly digitized Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (which means talking about the Ashburnham House fire);
  3. then, once I know I have a full complement, the Wikipedia thing;
  4. three five-minute student presentations. All smart and interesting. The first on animal guides; the second on ecology, conservationism, and sainthood; and the third on Christian allegory. Everyone had to write down a comment or question for every presenter, which meant a lively discussion until the break at 7:45;
  5. during the break, students who stuck around learned how to build a coracle;
  6. since mine might be the only medieval class the students take, I do a lot of “medieval ambassadorship”–or just show and tell–whenever I do take time to talk. Last night I showed them an Adam Roberts pun (“The Em-Bayeux Strikes Back”) and then…explained the joke;
  7. boring discussion of the papers I had just graded. Had to be done, but this I hadn’t quite planned on, so I reverted back to the old lecturing Karl. Will need to fix this next time;
  8. quick gesture at favorite bits from the immrama and echtrai, mostly from old issues of the Revue celtique available on Voyage of Snegdus and Mac Riagla; Voyage of Mael Duin; Voyage of the Húi Corra; and the Voyage of Bran. This led into a brief discussion of medieval remix culture, and using TvTropes to undo the modern pretension of “originality”;
  9. and finally, in-class writing, small group discussion, followed by reports back to the class.

Here were the questions:

  • Having read Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the Voyage of St. Brendan, what do you now know about Christian monastic asceticism, and what does this say about their conception about the good and the evil? What do they think someone needs to do to be holy, and why? [this required explaining the difference between asceticism and aestheticism];
  • Why is the Voyage precise on so many things (the size of the “iceberg” for example), but never about where things actually are (the relative position of the islands)?
  • Why should being naked except for full-body hair be a sign of holiness?

They got 10 minutes. They could write first about whichever one interested them, and all three if they could. One detailed response would be more than sufficient, though. Then groups of four had to try to synthesize an answer (which is always, usefully, impossible). Discussion had to be cut off, both in the small groups, and then when I finally let them go precisely at 9:10.

One more point! Because of all the in-class writing (which is ungraded but read and counts for 15% of their grade), and the presentation (which has a graded written component), I’m eliminating TWO short papers from my standard syllabus. Advantages abound: less to grade; they write more; they think about the reading more often, and possibly more deeply; and they have more time at home to work on their other classes. Which means I’m not the bad guy, and I’m stuck in grading jail a lot less.

Everyone wins.

Next week we start four weeks on Gerald of Wales. I hope we all can keep it up!

To discourage the others: Gerald’s humanity goes awry

K150063Here’s a post in the classic mode of 2007 brand Karl: a reading of an animals text, in this case, of a modern classic, namely, Gerald of Wales’s shifting reactions to animal-human hybrids and bestiality in a block of stories in his History and Topography of Ireland (also see Eileen in 2007, on this episode and gender).

To the story of a “semibos vir,” a creature partly ox and partly human, sheltered by the Marcher lord Maurice fitzGerald and killed by Irish natives, Gerald responds with what our Jeffrey calls an “uncharacteristic undercurrent of melancholy, ambivalence, and regret.” Gerald does not judge the nature of this, the section’s first hybrid: he lists its bovine face and extremities and its speechlessness; he condemns its death; but he is reluctant to categorize it (“an extraordinary man was seen—-if indeed it be right to call him a man”; O’Meara trans.). Notably, in the History‘s second recension, as if responding to critics, Gerald extends his consideration of the ox/man: he admits the peculiarity of classifying the death of the “semibos vir” as a homicide (“sed et hujus animalis interemptor nunquid homicida dicetur?”) and finally suggests that the strange excursus might be excused as simply representing nature having its revenge rather than as offering a topic for disputation (““Sed excersus hujiusmodi sunt excusandi: potiusque timenda est naturae vindicta, quam disputatione discutienda.”). Gerald thus, very briefly, suspends debate over the nature and privileges of the human; he would rather the ox/man be thought about some other way.

But almost as soon as he relaxes his judgment, he tries to remember himself. He classifies his next hybrid, yet another ox/man, as having “plus hominis quam pecoris” (more of the man than of livestock), and then a cow/stag as being more like livestock than wild animals. In both these cases, he brings them closer to himself—one is nearly human, one nearly domestic—as if refusing to let either one wander too far from his supervision. He concludes with two cases of bestiality, both committed by women, one with a goat, the other with a lion.

Though bestiality produced the hybrids of his previous stories, Gerald strains to refuse himself his own curiosity for it. He had praised the goat, perhaps aesthetically, perhaps erotically, as being “remarkable…for the length of its coat and height of its horns” (O’Meara trans.), yet humans drawn by this beauty to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities” (again, Jeffrey, from “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages”) must, as Gerald reports, be consigned to death for submitting themselves to the creatures they should, as humans, master.

Gerald nonetheless does not quite know what to do with the final incident. He first blames the lion. The section heading, in both the first (p. 146-147: warning, pdf) and second recensions of the History, is “de leone mulierem adamante ” (a lion who loved a woman), and he explains that the lion “bestiali amore” (made beastly love) to a “fatuam” (a foolish woman), and, as a result, was locked up; when it escaped from its cage, only the woman could calm it. Gerald then blames the woman, because, “muliebribus ipsum demulcens illecebris” (caressing it with womanly enticements), “omnem statim furorem in amorem convertebat” (she at once changed all its rage into love). Faced with such a horror, he exclaims, “O utramque bestiam turpi morte dignissimam” (Each one a beast, most worthy of a shameful death!). Having allocated responsibility to both human and animal, he then recalls that even the ancients committed bestiality. He quotes Leviticus 20:16, “The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same,” and glosses the verse to explain that the beast is killed “non propter culpam, a qua bestialitas excusat” (not because of its guilt, from which it is excused because of its bestialness). By denying the lion reason, by making it only an object of the woman’s lust, by subjecting the lion to death, not execution, by delivering it to the human as mere life, as an instrument broken by misuse, by, in short, hiding himself within doctrinal Christianity, Gerald tries to reactive the temporarily inert system of the human.

But even here he goes awry: he further justifies condemning the lion to death “propter memoriae refricationem, quae ad mentem facinus revocare solet” (in order to irritate the memory again, by recalling to the mind the crime). Fair enough: pour décourager les autres, I suppose. But which others? And whose mind is being irritated (again)? And how to translate that “solet” gracefully? “It is for the habit of recalling the crime to the mind”? I’m honestly a bit lost on this point. Does he mean to frighten animals, or humans, horrified by the deaths of their animal inamoranti, or both?

And, having just told the story, has he not just himself recalled to mind the crime, but perhaps for a different purpose, one of wonder–despite himself–rather than a simple, humanist condemnation? After all, in the second recension, he (or someone) can’t help but add a little tag to tale’s end: “de Pasiphe quoque, taurum adamante, multorum opinione non fabula quidem sed res gesta fuit” (also, Pasiphaë, the bull lover, [whose story] many consider to be not fiction but rather history). Someone, his or her mind irritated, wants to add more, driven to dreamy contemplation of sin, I might say, by an overzealous confessor.

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).