Flash Review: Jonathan Elukin, Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages


I hope this study of how Jews lived among Christians has suggested that many of the fundamental characteristics and experiences of convivencia can be seen in non-Spanish settings. Jewish-Christian relations in northern Europe is actually convivencia in a minor key. Seeing the medieval past in this light will perhaps help to eliminate or at least challenge the false dichotomy between the experience of Jews in Spain (and other Mediterranean settings) and of Jews in northern European societies in the Middle Ages. Jews of England, France, Italy, and Germany were deeply integrated into the rhythms of their local worlds. They faced many of the same challenges and uncertainties as their Christian neighbors. They navigated a world of unexpected violence but recurring stability, ad hoc policies of repression and toleration. All of this suggests that Jewish-Christian relations were dynamic and cannot be understood only in terms of persecution. Jewish-Christian interaction in medieval Europe created if not a history of toleration then habits of tolerance. (136-7)

By trying to write as though the Holocaust were not the inevitable future of European Jews, Elukin aims to shift our attention away from lachrymose history to quotidian survival. In the early middle ages, at least, we shouldn’t confuse clerical antijudaism with general attitudes: how much power did Church councils really have, he asks, and what could an antisemitic king do when he could barely hold onto his (Visigothic) throne? Moreover, he argues, violence was not typical for Jews, or, at least, not particular for Jews: in polities without much in the way of infrastructure, standing armies, or police forces, in a public rhetorical tradition devoted not to calm description but to evaluation–praise and blame, violence was endemic. What the Jews suffered was not all that unusual. Violence should be understood as only occasionally afflicting the Jews, who, despite it all, almost always came back to the cities or regions that expelled or massacred them. Sometimes this took a generation, as in the Rhine valley following 1096; sometimes this took centuries, as in England following 1290. But it always happened. Elukin implies, in brief, that we should not believe we know better than the Jews: if they thought it was safe to move back, why shouldn’t we?

Elukin’s evidence did shake some of my lachrymose expectations: Jews in early medieval Sicily established a shrine to Elijah on the model of a Christian saint’s shrine; Jews in Rheims offered to bring out their Torah to help break a drought; the Jews of eleventh- and twelfth-century Speyer had to take their turns guarding the town walls; English ‘ritual murder’ shrines were financially unsuccessful; interfaith marriages and Christian conversions to (what we now call) Judaism occurred…every so often. But a brief work that covers this much temporal and geographical territory (from 5th-century Minorca to 17th-century Germany) must necessarily skim (see for example Michael Toch’s review of Elukin in The Catholic Historical Review); its reception of Gregory of Tours and other historical narratives takes as straight fact what should be taken as discursive fact (and here Elukin could have looked to the model of Daniel Boyarin’s thinking with Marc Bloch and Foucault, either here or here or here or indeed here); its conception of two clear groups called “Jew” and “Christian” could have worked more with Ivan Marcus and Israel Yuvel. Ultimately, I’m unconvinced by the rosier picture Elukin promotes. Rhetoric against heretics or peasants or women could get nasty, yes, and violence against Jews should be understood within the larger context of a Christian and exploitative and masculinist society whose objective violence is all too clear to we paranoid modern critics. But surely the repeated massacres, judicial murders, and expulsions of Jews from the late eleventh century on, and the centrality of antijudaism to, say, the development of Mariolotry (warning: pdf) suggests that Jews were a special object of hatred for medieval Christians. We may be back where we started.

Not quite, I hope: with Elukin in hand, we should read more carefully, read in the heterogeneous present of medieval Jews without having their future, our present, so clearly in mind. We read with a hope at once retroactive and future-oriented, knowing that what we think of as the past tied singly to the future could have gone another way and indeed went other ways in its own present, where we have York 1190 but also the York before that, where Jews made a community among Christians, where I imagine not every Jew and not every Christian was recognizable, primarily, as such. In a society in which Jews hired Christian nursemaids, we have to rethink the primacy of religious divisions.

That said, that Jews returned to their various particular homelands–England, France, Germany–and that they therefore did not feel themselves to be in danger does not mean that they were not in danger. We can see patterns they couldn’t. Yes, Jews held on to Spain even after 1391; they moved back to the Rhine valley after 1096; they petitioned to return to England in 1320. These were mistakes. I think Elukin takes Jews as rational actors. But people aren’t rational, or not only rational. Or, better, home and habits have reasons of their own. A comparison, mutatis mutandis to avoid any sense that I’m blaming the Jews for what they suffered: in 2010, in this time of climate change, Americans continue hyperconsuming. There’s no indication that this will stop. This doesn’t mean I’m not in danger (nor does it mean, once more, that systemic antisemitism and antisemites are identical to climate). It just means that, like people generally, I’m insufficiently pessimistic, unable to do what I should to abandon my home, my habits, and therefore myself, though I need to if I’m ever going to escape this coming doom.

Erkenwald and the Muslims

John Stow on LudgateIf you were up at 9am on a Siena Monday, and decided to head out to the train station, you might have heard the latest work on my continuing Erkenwald project (earlier versions here and here). The paper? “The Past as Past is its Disappearance: Erkenwald and the Jews”: the interested may look for the whole paper elsewhere, but my argument, in essence, was to assert that the past Erkenwald creates (and erases) is not only pagan but also (what it figures as) Jewish, and that it figures this Jewish past as past (which is to say static and ultimately untouchable by the ‘present’). I offered only an implicit connection to the “Touching the Past” theme. To elaborate more, briefly: it’s Erkenwald v. Faulkner.

Some evidence:
  • Erkenwald’s opening explodes with multiple temporalities, which it just as quickly resolves into two times: the past (time of law) and present (time of grace), as if the poem explicitly illustrates how to condense the heterogeneity of time into coherent temporal polities;
  • Among the “pagan” temples the poem converts to Christianity is “Þe Synagoge of þe Sonne,” which is “sett to oure Lady” (21): since Gollancz the criticism has ignored the “Synagogue” or apprehended it as yet another pagan temple. I read it, however, as signaling a particular building, a synagogue taken by King Henry in 1243, given to the Brethren of Saint Anthony [paranoiacs will suspect a porcine insult in this dedication] and rededicated as a chapel of Mary (Close Rolls Henry III, 1242-47, 142), an event recalled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and perhaps also in the intervening centuries (follow the link above to the paper itself for a tendentious sophisticated exegesis of the “Synagogue” being off-kilter from the central site of the poem, the demolished [not converted] temple where St Paul’s would be built);
  • As Erkenwald criticism knows, the closest analogue for its unbaptized righteous judge appears in the Trajan material of either Piers Plowman B.XII.270-95 (Schmidt ed.) and C.XIV.194-217 (Pearsall ed.), or, more exactly, commentaries on Purgatorio 10.73-75, either by an Anonymous Lombard (1325) or by Iacobo della Lanna. Trajan’s righteousness? He has his own son executed for murdering a widow’s son. Trajan includes himself wholly within the law, utterly committed to following it even if doing so means destroying his own progeny. He is therefore at once a figure and victim of merciless justice, of law that offers only destruction, no expiation. Erkenwald’s judge is likewise a figure of justice without grace, exit, or future: the substitution of pagan emperor for pagan judge thus intensifies judicial elements already present in the original story or indeed in Pauline doctrine as it tended to be understood by medieval Christianity (key texts: Romans 4:14 and Galatians 5:4-5);
  • Finally, because honestly I could go on, Harley 2250 (made in 1477), a miscellany of exempla, clerical guides, and saints’ lives (partial listing here; thanks to Alan Stewart for sending me a more complete list), where our sole surviving copy of the poem resides, contains little or no reference to England’s pagan past, barring its Alban legend (I think the same as Laud 108 South English Legendary version), of interest no doubt because it is an English martyrdom. It does, however, include (at least) three works concerned with Jews: one on the conversion of the Jews of Beirut, another on a Jew robbed between Bristol and Wilton, saved by the virgin, who converts, and another, notably, on the Jews’ vain attempts to rebuild their temple. No doubt I will talk more about this at the 2011 MLA Convention in an Erkenwald session organized by Philip Schwyzer and starring Seeta Chaganti, Naomi Howell (U of Exeter), and me, your most humble of sinners.
Read on for the Muslim question!

The converted temples of Erkenwald’s opening also include these: “Þat ere was of Appolyn is now of Saynt Petre, / Mahoun to Saynt Margrete oþir Maudelayne” (19-20, that which was dedicated to Apollyon [or Appolo] is now dedicated to Saint Peter, and Mohammed to either Saint Margaret or Magdalene).

I’m asking you, blog readers, lurkers and otherwise, to weigh in. As Sarah Salih asked (and I paraphrase: apologies for memory slips), in Erkenwald‘s grand narrative of past and present, of creating the past and separating it from what it wants to be present/presence, what do we make of the continuing present of Islam, this most recent of world faiths, situated here in the distant past of London as it is situated in the now of Christianity? What to make of these, given my arguments about the “past as past”? No doubt Mary Kate’s paper on Chaucer and the Anglo-Saxons could help here.

My answer was, I have to say, a bit weak. I had read “Synagoge” closely, so in all fairness I couldn’t just read past the Mohammed reference. So: I answered by speaking of the poem’s “Islamic idol” as further figuring the inability to close off the past as past; more simply, the Mohammed reference might suggest the resolution of all non-Christian faiths into one homogeneous glob: pagans, Jews, and Muslims are all equally lost; alternately alternately, we might understand that Erkenwald grants Islam an antiquity medieval Christianity tended to deny it, thus undercutting one of the key arguments against Islam, namely, its newfangledness.

Surely, though, there’s more that could be done?

(postscript: for the image, above: I read Erkenwald as medieval kindred to John Stow’s early modern account of a discovery made during repairs to Ludgate in 1586: here, mixed in with the supposed remnant of London’s legendary foundation by the pagan King Lud, workers discover a stone “grauen in Hebrewe caracters,” the very image of what Christianity understood to be its foundational, superseded past.)

Groundlessness and Torture

227290620_344899bf8dHere I am again. In anticipation of Kzoo book shopping, I’ve carved out time in the last month to read through chunks of my library: can I justify getting more books this time if I haven’t yet read, say, last year’s Geoffrey of Auxerre Apocalypse Commentary? Unlikely, unless I seek justification somewhere else for buying books.

Most recently, I read Suger’s Deeds of Louis the Fat, picked up, according to my jacket flap note, in 2001, and otherwise untouched until last week. The Deeds aims to tether the Abbey of St. Denis to the French Crown: this is its religion (from “ligare,” to tie, fasten). Suger thus cheers on Louis’s suppression of “tyrants,” who, in this case, are the intransigent lords surrounding Paris, reluctant to cede to the King their right to independent violence. As might be expected, the Deeds is full of interesting tidbits: Parisian Jews–per the notes, like the Roman Jews–present the new Pope with a covered Torah scroll; Louis’s great enemy Hugh of Crécy escapes by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute; Suger hates the barbaric Germans and admires the Norman Kings of England; a demonic pig kills Louis’s son Philip (for more see here); and, delightfully, Suger blanches when the monks of St. Denis elect him Abbot without consulting Louis: throughout the Deeds, Suger assails the Holy Roman Emperor for insisting on the Imperial right to clerical investiture, but only here, with his own election, does Suger have to confront the full implications of his ideals.

The Deeds‘ most striking feature is its violence. The troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return “carrying their fists in their fists.” Louis ravages the sections of Normandy held by the Kings of England. He hangs the chief conspirator in the murder of Charles the Good with a dog, which gnaws off the conspirator’s face and covers him in its shit (any connection?). Here’s a typical moment in the Deeds:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [for this, see first hit here]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William’s unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil.

My question concerns our response. Our benighted colleagues might think this an example of a particularly medieval violence. We might think in terms of the sociology of missile weapons, or the history of juridical violence, or of the body, or of the heart as the organ of the self; observing that Suger tells us nothing of the pain William and his men suffer, we might preserve this passage as a witness in the history of pain. Proper scholarly responses are uncountable.

It strikes me, however, that good scholarly responses stifle what we ought to do with Suger’s love of Louis’s violence: we should condemn it; we should be appalled, outraged; we should look at St. Denis and want to destroy it, to erect in its place a statue of Louis and Suger, enmeshed in damp viscera, a statue, if such a thing were possible, that induced nausea in any patriot. We can of course turn this horror again, to wonder, in a scholarly, yet corporeal, manner at the differing disingenuities of a scholarship that denies affect versus a scholarship that revels, “authentically,” in affect, as if emotion were “truer” than scholarship, as if scholarship without emotional investment were possible. We can study the history that makes “scholarly, yet corporeal” a likely and meaningful opposition.

We can also turn to wondering what grounds we have for condemning Suger. He’s a prelate and monk. We would prefer that he be otherworldly rather than a statesman. We would prefer that he love his enemies, that he forgive them and attempt to lead them to a good life through his patience, that he martyr himself in cherishing the souls of others, that he reserve judgment to God. Preferring this, we could accuse Suger of being a bad Christian, a hypocritical lover of the world, of the state and its violence. Being good scholars and good postmodernists, we would have to know, however, that the accusation of hypocrisy relies upon belief in the impossible, namely, the existence, somewhere, of “authentic speech” and “authentic belief,” identical with the self. Being good postmodernists and good scholars, we also would have to know that Suger’s Christianity, in all its violence and dedication to the Crown and its methods, is as true a Christianity as any.

What grounds do we have left to condemn Suger? A postmodern cliché: the ground will always give way, regardless of our strategy. There are, I know, postmodern ethics. We have ethics founded on surprise and wonder; on subjects called into being as hostages to the other; on enclosing and cherishing and touching another; on the ‘minimal violence’ of strategic naming to protect another. We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds. This point, I know, is hoary by now; but I can’t leave it alone.

Because when (astonishingly) Shep Smith, a Fox News Talking Head, shouts “we are America! We do not fucking torture!, I applaud (and am, also, horrified that this even has to be said, has to keep being said), but, then, like a good postmodern, I remind myself, smirkingly, of the precritical metaphysical conceit of Smith’s distinction between what America has done and what America is. When one of the legal architects of torture is reported to have whinged about his memos being taken too far, I want to immolate him as a hypocrite while, again smirkingly, realizing that Bybee’s whinging is as sincere as speech can be. When the Christian Right approves and applauds torture, I want to compel them to live up to their own beliefs (e.g., here), before remembering that Ashcroft’s Christianity is as true as any other.

Responding like a scholar to Suger and Yoo alike, I wonder, as so many others have wondered, if my dedication to critique means, finally, that I cannot actually say anything.

(a useful resource) (image from here via a Creative Commons license)

The Deeds of Louis the Fat, Abbot Suger

352404As the translators emphasize, Abbot Suger wrote the Deeds rather than Life of Louis: this difference supposedly accounts for the absence of much of what might interest us, although it says more about what counts as a “deed.” There’s nothing, or virtually nothing, about Louis’s wife and children (so we see a distinction, I think, between private “life” and public “deeds,” even with a family as public as that of a King), nothing about his interests–apart from war-making–and thus nothing about, say, whether he read, or what he ate [although the evidence is: too much and too often (135)]. The contrasts with, say, Asser’s Life of Alfred are startling.

It’s also illustrative to compare the Deeds of Louis to that of another young King, contemporary to Louis, who tried to bring (his own) peace to his disunified realm, namely, Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Arthur handily defeats each of his enemies, and never has to fight anyone twice; Louis scrambles from place to place throughout his reign, killing his vassals’ men and having his killed in turn, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and only very rarely, and only at times of weakness, negotiating a peace; at least he doesn’t fall, as Chrétien’s Erec does, to idleness (61). The differences can be blamed on the difference between Norman Kingship in England (which I believed attained a monopoly on legitimate violence quickly) and the French Capetian Kings, who only began to attain a monopoly on legitimate violence during Louis’s reign. Note, then, that throwing down tyrants is among Louis’s duties. We would expect the King to be the sole possible tyrant of France, but this would mean mistaking the feebleness of a medieval French King for the grandeur of Louis XIV. What does Louis actually accomplish? Toward the end of his reign, he’s able to take a host from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand without being accosted and to impress the Aquitaine Duke so much that he gives his daughter, Eleanor, to Louis’s son in marriage; earlier, he assembled a host to meet the German emperor, who decides that invading France would be too much trouble. Louis’s greatest victories, then, are when he intimidates rather than kills (131-32).

But Louis does kill a lot. We learn a lot about medieval juridical violence: the troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return “carrying their fists in their fists” (136); I lost track of how many people he blinds and castrates; and the punishments he inflicts on the murderers of Charles the Good in Bourges are terrible (cf. The Murder of Charles the Good): the chief conspirator is hanged with a dog, which angrily bites off the conspirator’s face and covers him in its shit (141). Here’s an example of what Suger admires:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [note, this an allusion to lore about Judas’s suicide, a point our translators missed:]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William’s unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil. (80)

Also notable: still more evidence of Le Goff’s errors on the sociology of missile weapons; we get a sense of how minimally well someone has to behave to earn Suger’s admiration: Pope Paschal visits the church of St. Martin of Tours and doesn’t walk off with all its gold: what a model of good behavior! You want a cookie? (48); we see Louis’s great enemy Hugh of Crécy escape by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute (67: man or woman?); Abbot Suger hates the Germans (e.g., “they gnashed their teeth violently as Germans do” (50), and we might cf. Suger on the wily Emperor Henry V to Odo of Deuil on the wily Emperor Manuel Komnenos), but admires the Normans (e.g., 70); he is not of the party of Anacletus II, née Peter Leo, but he says nothing (146-51) about his Jewish ancestry (see The Jewish Pope), which suggests that Anacletus’s lineage wasn’t common knowledge; we see an antipope, Burdinus, made to ride through Rome on a camel wearing bloody undressed goatskins (121); anyone interested in the investiture crisis will love Suger’s terror when he’s elected Abbot of St. Denis without Louis’s knowledge (125): he had condemned the HRE repeatedly for curtailing the independence of the church, and now, finding his own church independent, he’s nearly crushed between his ideals and the political reality; he admires the crusaders no more than he does any other knight (e.g., 104), which is to say, he apparently doesn’t believe that any special grace accrues to those who go to fight in the Holy Land: note how he speaks of Flanders being “baptized” after Louis avenges the murder of Charles the Good; we’ve a record of Philip’s death-by-demonic-pig (149-50; for more on this, see Michel Pastoureau); we see Suger cite Merlin’s prophecy as truth (69); and, most astonishing for me, we see that the Jews of Paris traditionally (from when? for what purpose?) presented New Popes with a Torah scroll: “and even members of that blind synagogue of the Jews of Paris came forward and offered him the scroll of the Law beneath a veil” (148)

To be praised for its lively translation, deep notes, and a very thorough map.

De Profectione Ludovici VII In Orientem: The Journey Of Louis VII To The East, Odo of Cluny

1714328Odo, an intimate advisor to Louis VII, here records the disastrous second crusade from a French perspective up to Louis’s departure from Adalia for Antioch. Odo faces the problem of praising Louis, disparaging Conrad (the German Emperor, and an enemy of St. Denis, where Odo worked with Abbot Suger), and piecing together warnings for future crusaders. He finds his answer by demonizing the Byzantines, whom he eventually conflates with the Crusader’s non-Christian opponents (he speaks, for example, about “the Greeks and the Turks” joining together in Anatolia–understandably so!–in retaliation for crusader looting, and repeatedly calls the Greeks heretics and false Christians: 57, “ipsa rem Christianitatis non habet, sed nomen” [{Constantinople} is Christian only in name, not in fact:] (69)). His praise of Constantinople’s beauty and excellent climate (87 ff, for example)) always have the air of inviting conquest.

Medievalists will especially note Odo’s contribution to the history of Orientalism: we encounter the indolent, deceitful, cagey, flattering, too-brainy-by-half Manuel Comnenus (sneered at as an “Idol” by Odo, 91), characteristics shared by the Greeks in general. Greek men are like women in lightness of their promises (57), and their character is best summarized by Odo’s hatred for “dolis Graecorum inertium” (the treachery of the lazy Greeks; 98). Anticipating the “yellow hoards” of anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese propaganda, Odo describes de-individuated “hordes” of Turks, who just keep coming (119); or, who fight by cunning instead of strength (111). We also hear of “Nicomedia…set among thorns and brambles, her lofty ruins testify to her former glory and her present masters’ inactivity” (89), which sounds like nothing less than the Lord Balfour speech made so famous by [book:Orientalism|355190].

Generalist medievalists will find a number of interesting historical tidbits relating to the history of warfare. Odo hates when lords sacrifice themselves to save their servants, rather than the other way around (119); Louis faces constant difficulties in purchasing food for his army, which results in predictable disasters: starvation alternates with looting and retaliation from both local vigilantes and Louis’s swift justice; and, eventually, Frankish servants abandon their masters either to serve the Greeks (107) or to follow the generous and broad-minded Turks (141: cf. paragraph above). Military folk will also observe that the crusaders, lacking adequate missile weapons, are massacred repeatedly by Turkish and Greek arrow assaults in the hills of Anatolia. The crusaders do not learn how to form a battle line until, deep in Anatolia, they encounter Evrard of Barres, Lord Templar, who reorganizes what remains of their army (124-7). Not that it will do them much good: almost none reach Antioch, let alone Jerusalem or Damascus.

Other tidbits: I found the references to hippophagy among the starving crusaders of interest (e.g., 93) because Odo never condemns it: he clearly thinks it a sign of desperation, and it should be assumed that he knows the Penitential literature, but he still views hippophagy as only a military problem. I also noted the reference to “villulam…rusticos socios beluarum” (the hamlet of peasants, companions of beasts; 105). Byzantinists likely already know the court ceremonial Odo describes: how lords sit to eat while their retinue stands, the “scaramangion” worn by the poor and rich Greeks, the singing and graceful demeanor of Eunuchs at Greek church services (this much admired by the Franks! (69) Readers will also note that almost all references to Eleanor of Aquitaine, at the time married to Louis, have been excised, and not very gracefully at that.

The translation strikes me as excellent, and I love me a facing-page edition. I’m giving this 4 stars only because I wish Odo had written more.

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?

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).