Eating Harts: Blurton Chapter II

Blurton’s second chapter considers Beowulf within the alimentary logic and wonders of the whole of its manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A. XV, whose contents, as our Anglo-Saxonists surely know, include “part of a life of Saint Christopher, a version of the Wonders of the East, The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, and an Old English redaction of the Book of Judith” (37). I loved meeting Donestres, Cynocephali, and other old friends in this chapter, and also enjoyed Blurton’s discussion of the problem word eoten. It’s a word whose meaning is clear enough during Grendel’s assault on Heorot “cannibal/anthropophage/maneater/whatever” (not Blurton’s translation there, folks), but in the other five instances, for example, during the Fight at Finnsburg episode, it “seems to connote..a group of people rather than a group of giants or other monsters” (52). Blurton argues the word should be translated consistently as having to do with cannibals and cannibalism, not, for instance, as “monster.” As she points out, Grendel is a threat not so much because of his size as because of his dietary habits, and also the Finnsburg fight is, like Grendel’s assault on Heorot, about a metaphoric threat “of cannibalistic incorporation” and a quite literal threat to the body politic (55). In sum, she argues that “The Beowulf-poet weaves the word [eoten] through the narrative to stress [the] theme of the conceptual link between the cannibalizing of the human body and the cannibalizing of the social body” (55).

I’m highlighting this argument, first, because I enjoy a good linguistic crux, especially one that leads to conclusions as surprising as these, and second, because I’m not an Anglo-Saxonist, so I don’t know what to make of her reading. In other words, I’ve love for some of my co-bloggers who know their way around Beowulf (in other words, the ones who aren’t me), as well as some other Anglo-Saxonists (Richard Scott Nokes and Mary Kate Hurley for example) to weigh in on this matter.

My second observation on this chapter is also–I hope not characteristically–minor, but I wanted, as I did in my previous post, to add a little something from my own reading to Blurton’s work. Inspired in part by the description of Grendel stepping through the “mouth” of Heorot, Blurton suggests that “Heorot is also a body of a kind. Heorot is itself metonymy for the body politic of the Danes” (36). You can see how this resonates with the interpretation I describe in the paragraph above. Now, Heorot is not just a kind of body; Heorot is in fact a very particular kind of body, namely (and obviously if you have Anglo-Saxon: which I don’t), that of a hart. A few months back, I read William Perry Marvin’s Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature, where Marvin makes much of the hall’s strange name (why not call it “Hrothgar’s Place”?). In his chapter on Beowulf, Marvin describes two opposed modes of hunting: one in which killing an animal made the animal your property, and the other in which killing the animal made a claim to territory (he describes a third one as well, which I won’t get into here). Hrothgar has taken land and gains retainers by sharing out booty. As Marvin puts it, Grendel’s invasion of the Hart is an assault on Hrothgar’s “gifting prerogative” to force “the parting out of pieces of the body of the Hart–literally, Scylding warriors in the flesh” (43). Marvin’s political reading is a nice counterpart to Blurton’s: e.g, “Grendel’s actions appear regressive because he cannot stomach dynastic appropriation–an intolerance that is perfectly compatible with the most hard-bitten frontier egalitarianism of the migration and viking ages” (42). But what I also like about Marvin is that he doesn’t lose sight of the fleshy materiality of either anthropophagy or the eating of harts. By contrast, Blurton’s reading is emphatically metaphorical, and there’s no foul there: certainly anthropophagy is symbolically charged.

My Kzoo paper on anthropophagy (auto-horn-tooting) tried to answer why it should be so charged, but it also tried to keep in mind its fleshiness. So here I end with a different sort of question, meant for those of you in an answering mood: how might a fleshy reading of some of Blurton’s cannibalism texts–Beowulf for example–work? How might this enhance or alter her readings?

I’ll check in periodically over the weekend–I’m following my wife as she takes a quick worktrip to San Francisco–but I trust my fellow bloggers to keep things humming here.

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Partners in Grief: Andrew and the Starving Mermedonians

1050805589_00cdad0cbfA entry in a book event, unlike a book review, makes no claim to completeness, finality, or even to treating the book under question directly. Consider yourself warned, because what I’m posting is a less-cluttered version of the marginalia you see pictured.

The subject of Blurton’s first chapter is the Old English Andreas, which tells the story of a warrior saint sent to the anthropophagous Mermedonians. Soon after he arrives, Andrew frees Matthew and hundreds of others from prison, so depriving the Mermedonians of their food. They wail, of course, and feed on the corpses of the guards slain by Andrew. Still hungry, they fall to drawing lots to determine who will be eaten next. Blurton sets out a standard approach to this episode:

When a victim is chosen in this way, in order to save himself, he substitutes his small son in his place. While the Mermedonians are described as starving: “hungre wæron / þearle geþreatod” [they were cruelly harassed by hunger] (1114b-1115a; 139), the horror of the Mermedonians’ ravenous rage turned against an innocent boy through the agency of one by whom he should be loved and protected highlights their depravity and, by extension, the righteousness of Andreas’ mission. (17-18)

She of course sets out the standard approach only to muddle the clear binaries. As Mermedonia is an island that looks much like Britain, and since Andrew’s mission seems to be as much one of conquest as it is one of conversion, we might say Andrew’s gone a-Viking and the Mermedonians are his victims (25). The Mermedonian costume and military organization should themselves be uncannily familiar to the tenth-century English. And Andrew himself is someone who eats human flesh and drinks human blood: he’s a Christian after all, and it had recently become de rigeur to demand that the Eucharist be understood as the real body of Christ.

Blurton explains in an early note that she won’t be discussing famine cannibalism in her book (139 n2), but it strikes me that the topoi of famine cannibalism can be used to draw Andrew and the Mermedonians still more closely together. When anthropophagy is a custom, it’s of course monstrous (indeed, as Blurton observes, it’s a standard feature for many of the monsters in the Liber monstrorum), but when anthropophagy results from famine, it’s a catastrophe, a cause for grief, and thus provokes a wholly different kind of horror, one that involves us rather than one that distinguishes us from some other. And it’s usual to turn to eating children during a famine: see Leviticus 26:27-9, Deuteronomy 28:53-7, Lamentations 4:10, or 2 Kings 6 :28-29; or the story from Josephus of Mary/Maria of Jerusalem, who cooks and eats half her own child during Titus’s siege (see my reference and its note in the first graph here); or the ninth-century Annals of Fulda, in which a family is saved from killing their child during a famine only when they steal a deer’s carcass from hungry wolves; or the sad story of a father who killed and ate his own daughter during a famine at the command of his Saracen captors (Innocent III responds to the father’s appeal for penance by enjoining him “nunquam de caetero carnibus pro quacunque necessitate vesceretur” (Epistola LXXX, PL 214: 1063D-64B; never again to eat any other meat for whatever necessity); or even, looking far afield, this law from the thirteenth-century Castillian lawcode, the Siete Partidas:

And there is another reason that a father can do this: according to the true law of Spain a father who is besieged in a castle he holds from his lord, may, if so beset with hunger that he has nothing to eat, eat his child with impunity rather than surrender the castle without permission of the lord (quoted from John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers 329)

Blurton aims at doing a “contrapuntal reading” (see Said Culture and Imperialism) that “creates a counterpoint between a dominant cultural discourse and a resisting perspective, which opens up a new space for meaning” (18); in this case, “Reading Andreas contrapuntally uncovers what I refer to as its cannibal narrative, that is, a narrative that is sympathetic to the cannibal Mermedonians” (18). I would like to think that if I weren’t suffering from a days’-long headcold, I could draw all this together. For now, I want only to observe that when the father saves himself by offering up his son to be eaten, any response that saw this only as monstrous would be self-congratulatory. But more likely, the response would have been the shock of the familiar, the shuddering memory of what horrors famines cause (on their frequency, and thus familiarity, see the list in P. Bonnassie “Consommation d’aliments immondes et cannibalisme de survie dans l’Occident du haut Moyen Age.” Annales 44 (1989): 1035-56, at 1045: there were 29 major famines between 751 and 1100), and shared sorrow. For a time, the readers of Andreas would have felt for and with the Mermedonians.