The insects and the miller / The krycket & þe greshope

From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt.


Here’s a macaronic, presumably late 15th-century poem from Peniarth MS 356b, which I ran across yesterday in Robbins’ Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (2nd. ed), p. 104.

The krycket & þe greshope wentyn here to fy3ght,

With helme and haburyone all redy dy3ght;

The flee bare þe baner as a du3ty kny3th,

The cherubud trumpyt with all hys my3th.

Salamandraque cicada domitatum perereterunt,

Galiaque cum lorica presto se parauerunt;

Musca vexillum portabat vt miles egregius,

Scarabius buccinauit totis suis viribus.

The hare seyte a-pon þe hyll & chappynd here schone,

And swere by the knappes wich were þer a-pon,

That scho wowld not ryse ne gon

Tyll sche se xx howndes and a won.

Lepus super montem se ipsum collocauit,

Et suos sotulares laquitissinauit,

Et per laquitissos ipsequen iurauit

De lustro surgere nec ire voluit

quousque vigenti canis vnum videret.

Þe myler sedet o-pon the hull

and all þe hennes off the town drew hym tyll;

The mylner sayd, ‘schew, henne, schew!

I may not schake my bage for you.’

Molendinarius super montem sedebat,

gallinarum ville ad se copia currebat;

Molendinarius inquit, ‘sco, galina, sco!

Meum saccum pro uobis vrcillare non possum.’

I love this little poem, written in the end–I think–of a grammar, and therefore, perhaps, intended for children (at least per Nicholas Orme, “The Culture of Children in Medieval England,” Past & Present 148 (1995): 48-88 [82]).

I couldn’t tell you much more than what you see here. Crickets and Grasshoppers go together, as in this children’s natural history, or in this recent nature poem by Dan Beachy-Quick (“The poetry of the earth never ceases / Ceasing” &c., which edit I’m chagrined to have to be reminded, is a play on a little poem by a not-exactly-minor poet by the name of John Keats, as David Hadbawnik had to remind me), and also in scripture, Leviticus 11:22, although not in any version of the Bible, so far as I know, that would have been known in fifteenth-century Wales (Vulgate here; Wycliffite here, for example).

In the absence of any criticism, in the absence of being able to consult the manuscript online, and therefore in the absence of much of the needed cultural context, what can we do with this poem? On twitter, I called it “A great little macaronic poem of manuscript marginalia come to life” (a point, minus the “great,” already made by Douglas Gray), and that might be enough, alone.

If we want to take this as a children’s poem, and still respect it for all that (and why not?), and if we want to take this as a kind of nursery rhyme, with many of the features of the genre, we might observe the close relationship of children and insects, the very small, and the nervous (the hare awaiting the 21 dogs). Children work at a different time than we adults (presuming on my audience!), and a different scale. They’re more vulnerable, smaller, faster, with time moving more slowly (my birthday comes around so quickly these days). My wife recently introduced me to Delmore Schwartz’s “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” whose first line is just that, and whose entirety you really, really need to read if you don’t already know it.

We might take this little poem, in its bizarre resistance to interpretation, as just that, a stranger.

Or we might do more with it, paying attention to its language, form (why the five-line stanza in the middle?), and vocabulary. What, if anything, would you do with it?

(on children and animals, see Jeffrey’s ancient blog post, since turned into an article, most recently reprinted here.

And for more on Villard de Honnecourt, see Haylie Swenson’s essay in postmedieval 4.3)

Hearing Kneeling – snapshot from tonight’s Friar’s Tale Teaching

From the Friar’s Tale, Jill Mann ed.

“Thow lixt! quod she, ‘By my savacioun,

Ne was I nevere er now, widwe ne wif,

Somoned unto youre court in al my lif,

Ne nevere I nas but of my body trewe.

Unto the devel blak and rough of hewe

Yeve I thy body, and my panne also!’

And when the devl herde hire cursen so

Upon her knees, he seide in this manere: &c.

When the devil HEARD her curse UPON HER KNEES. He heard her on her knees. Really?

I told my students to close their eyes, and I got down on my knees behind my desk and menaced them with a whispered, “Damn you all to hell!”

“So, was I on my knees or not?”

They pretended not to be sure.

How do we know if the old widow’s sincere? I mean, apart from the whole medieval culture of gesture, what kind of synaesthesia does certainty require, when the voice has to be supplemented with gesture in order to be believed? And is this tale, so much about intention vs. words, resolved with action, neo-Donatist or not?

That was tonight’s class. The secret kneeling: highly recommended. The move into demonic synaesthesia: even more recommended.

Caught in Worms’ Eyes

I think this will be the last bit I’ll post to ITM, at least in this round of sharing. A bit of a roadmap of what comes between my most recent post and this one: after the dry death/wet death thoughts, I do the obligatory summary of the Disputation and briefly present the standard, moral reading, which, you know, aims to accurately duplicate the poem’s original interpretative possibilities: disdain the world for the sake of heaven, etc. etc.. And that’s fine! (or maybe it stinks?) Let a thousand (wormy) flowers bloom.


The first of the Disputation‘s four illustrations resembles a fashionable late medieval “double” or “cadaver” tomb, and so works perfectly within the contemptus mundi tradition. Classic English examples of these monuments, virtually contemporary with the Disputation manuscript, include those of Bishop Richard Fleming (d. 1431) at Lincoln Cathedral and of Henry Chichele (d. 1443) at Canterbury Cathedral. The top of a typical double tomb display the body as it appeared in the prime of life, dressed in its institutional regalia or otherwise elaborately clothed, lying as if in sleep; in a lower level, the tomb shows the body as an emaciated corpse, naked or barely draped with a shroud.

On the upper level, then, the tomb shows the perfected future body of the resurrection, or the entombed subject’s ideal imaginary (in a Lacanian sense) selfhood in the pride of its worldly life; below, the tomb represents the fraudulence of any beauty in this mutable world. Some funerary art went still further by displaying the corpse putrefying, with entrails exposed, swarming with toads, snakes, and other vermin. Some even eschewed the idealized body altogether, displaying only the rotting corpse (again, see Kathleen Cohen’s indispensable guide). Those who encountered the tomb were meant at once to admire the dead, to speed them through purgatory with their prayers, and, piously disgusted, to think on their own impending deaths (so says Pamela King).

Drawing on and perfecting this tradition, the Disputation‘s manuscript shows a lifelike, beautiful tomb sculpture while, at the same time, impossibly displaying the tomb’s rotting contents, around which cluster worms and other vermin. The Disputation itself includes a typical cadaver tomb verse on this very leaf (see above) by directing the reader, in the first two lines, to “take hede vnto my fygure here abowne / And se how sumtyne I was fressche & gay / Now turned to wormes mete & corrupcone” (take heed of my figure here above, now turned to worms’ meat and corruption), and in the final lines, encircled with a banner, “when þou leste wenes, venit mors te superare / when þi grafe [sic] grenes. bonum est mortis meditari” (when you least expect it, death comes and overcomes you; when the grass is green, it is good to have death in mind). The tomb may represent a woman in the pride of her life–admired by the world of her peers, feared and hated by monks, and scorned by God–but she has seen fit to make advance arrangements to have herself speak, through her tomb, the most properly orthodox sentiments about worldly contempt.

This is thus a tomb that, like other cadaver tombs, simultaneously announces a contempt for worldly existence while demanding that the subject be remembered; this is a promise that this self and the ones watching it will come to nothing that also maintains the self’s power to speak significantly as a moral authority. The self-abnegation of the cadaver tomb negates the negation by more firmly preserving the self against death’s oblivion. Far from giving the self entirely over to death, cadaver tombs instead grant the human as much perpetuity as this world offers (not least of all because many of them were made of stone!). Therefore, cadaver tombs and other medieval death art, for the most part, operate like anthropophagy narratives, which, by presenting anthropophagy as especially horrific, simultaneously enfold human death within ethical frames and, through significant silence, exclude the deaths of nonhumans from ethical significance (me!). Such deliberate humiliations preserve the self as self simply by letting the self decide to be humiliated; the self of self-abandonment remains its own responsible agent. Dispossession in this case is therefore a mode of continued possession.
Consider the following excerpt from an early fifteenth-century verse, “My lief life that livest in wealth,” in which a corpse catalogs its decay:

In mi riggeboon bredith an addir kene,

Min eiyen dasewyn swithe dimme:

Mi guttis rotin, myn heer is green,

My teeth grennen swithe grymme.

[In my spin breeds a fierce adder, my failed eyes dim very much: my guts rot, my hair is green, my teeth grin so grim.]

Rosemary Woolf terms this and the following, similar lines “perhaps too repellent in content…to deserve inclusion in any anthology” (318), but what should have struck her was not the repulsiveness but rather the anaphora: “mi riggeboon,” “min eiyen,” “mi guttis,” “my teeth.” The performance of dissolution, a deliquescent striptease, is not an instance of the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft–much loved by the new materialists–in which we confront the “anonymous, impersonal ‘in itself’ of the world, indifferent to us as human beings” (Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet, 17); nor is this an eruption of the “shapeless, mucous stuff of the life-substance” of the Real into the pride of the Symbolic. The repulsion of “My lief life” does not let itself out into or even past the furthest reaches of repulsion, since the repetition of the possessive pronoun in each line holds on to the body as human, as belonging to a speaking, singular subject, though the operations of the grave should undo it utterly. Here as elsewhere, the human body, whether idealized or hideous, remains the cynosure. As with cadaver tombs, any hungry vermin move through the body’s flesh or rest on top of it, or they orbit it as a kind of creeping halo. Focused on us, the vermin are as much of secondary importance to our existence as the pair of faithful dogs (here’s one; here’s another) so often serving as footrests for the central, human bodies of medieval recumbent tomb sculpture.

By contrast, the remaining three illustrations of the Disputation forsake anthropocentrism altogether, demanding an interpretation of the poem far less faithful to the interpretative traditions of medieval death poetry. The corpse and the worms are figures, as the dreamer explains, “strangly ilk one oþer corespondynge” (27; each one strangely alike the other), each engaging the other “in maner of a dyaloge” (28; in the manner of a dialogue). Here, humans have met their match; surprised to be engaged in a dialogue–or something like a dialogue–they have been dislodged from their presumption of centrality and singular agency.
c13087-35The illustrations (see my last two worm-posts for the other two) show an emaciated corpse standing, its face a skull, marked as a woman by its fashionable head-dress, and, depending on the illustration, either looking down or up at four worms, all as large as one of her limbs, and all with a single black dot perhaps representing an eye. In the illustrations, as in the text of the poem itself, the worms are the corpse’s equal or even superiors, another set of beings, interested in but not secondary to her. While the eye gives them just enough of a face to be able to address her, their featurelessness otherwise refuses anthropomorphic appropriation. Their presentation as a crowd of four “mawkes” (112) rather than an individuals—note that only the maggots are plural among the poem’s list of 19 grave animals—is just as much a refusal: as a hungry, speaking group, they are indisputably alive, but as a swarm or pack, they evade personalization, refusing to mirror back to us our pretensions to singular selfhood.

Not dogs, lions, or even birds, certainly not the “charismatic megafauna” so beloved by animal rights thinkers and, for that matter, youtube, not offering to meet us with the intimate, profound gaze of “wildlife,” the worms are like us only in their claim to agency, their need to feed, and, perhaps, their possession of their own wisdom. Furthermore, in their appetite, they claim to be our body’s ultimate master, or, in fact, the everpresent master whose supremacy we come to know only when our body gives out. The worms tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), commanding them:

Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;

Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,

And after come with þe to our regyowne,

þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)

[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].

The corpse protests by citing scripture, “bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle” (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man’s complaint). The worms counter, “Þat power dures whils man has lyfe…now þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe” (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable appetites, the corpse cannot spurn the worms as she should have spurned worldly delights. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject of animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims. And she cannot attempt to construct herself as human by subduing her harassers, because humans’ divinely promised mastery has been revealed as only ever temporary and partial, doomed to failure. In short, she cannot escape her own materiality and thus her own useful availability.

The corpse has been reminded that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). In discovering herself to be food, she also discovers herself to have been food all along, an unwitting host to a world of others. Put another way, the “food for worms” topos offers itself readily as a textual pre-history to the new materialism’s frequent (and welcome) bacterial perorations. I offer two examples:

The surfaces of living beings are envelopes and filters, thick regions where complex chemical transfers and reactions take place….At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down. (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 36).

Similarly, Jane Bennett glosses an observation that “the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively posses at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome,” with “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes” (112-113). Matter, vulnerable, temporary, and always sliding towards dissolution, breeds worms, which is to say, a host of abysses perforate it; as Isidore of Seville explains, worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus in fat” (XII.v.18, Barney et al., trans.).

And. FOLKS, if you’re still with me, this is as far as I know what to say. I know I’ll have to do more about abysses, then say something witty and helpful about the ethics of flat ontology, and then vainly CMA by dutifully apologizing to the traditional readings that cluster around British Library, Additional 37049, and finally offer another nice worms’ eye view. But for the love of Pete, I just don’t know how to end the last paragraph! This probably means scrapping the last two graphs and rebuilding them, and maybe digging for inspiration in Gillian Rudd’s Greenery.

Dry Death/Wet Death

another worm imagePicking up from yesterday:

….I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end, a notion that I’ll term “dry death.” Ash Wednesday’s “memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris” (remember, man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again into dust) is a typical dry conceptualization of death. According to Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, dust is “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put”; as unfertile earth, used up and useless, dust signifies the absence of form; it signifies matter that has ceased to be productive. For a later medieval example, see one of the smaller poems of the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which, echoing Ecclesiastes 3:21, explains “Þus waxeþ & wanteþ Mon, hors & hounde; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe” [129-30; thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. Even more dryly, the Middle English Death and Liffe characterizes death’s approach as the end of all vigor and motion:

the greene grasse in her gate she grindeth all to power,

trees tremble for ffeare & tipen to the groud,

leaues lighten downe lowe & leauen their might,

fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,

& the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme” [193-7]

in her walking, she grinds the green grass to power, trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground, leaves fall down and lose their power, birds fail to flee when they heard weapons [nb: a textual crux for which I’ll need a better edition], and the fishes in the water fail to swim.

Dry death essentially imagines death only from the perspective of the dying subject, who solipsistically imagines that one’s personal death is the end of all life. It emphasizes formlessness, the end of striving, and the ultimate absence where self once was; death in this model is both absolutely private and absolutely privative.

An opposing strain of medieval death poetry—a wet rather than dry imagination—stresses the putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate around the dead. This strain offers fertile ground for thinking through the ecomaterialist appetitive abyss, for it may be the largest body of literature that so thoroughly worries at the inherent edibility of being, that realizes that one’s subjective death occasions new life, and that acknowledges that like it or not, all worldly things are for others in some way. Humans and others may eventually revert to ashes, which is to say, to unrecognizable formlessness, but to get to this point, they must be used up by a one gullet after another, which will be material for the flourishing of others in turn. Put another way, death is only an end for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. If we know ourselves to be matter, we must recognize our constitutive presence in a world in which we can never be useless.
The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave and see “inde scatentem vermium colluviem” [qtd. from 400; there a mass teeming with worms]: the human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. Ephraem reveals the absence of a self, but just as emphatically, he reveals the constitutive utility of a body for other bodies. A millennium later, John Bromyard’s fourteenth-century Summae praedicantium has a proud young man looks into father’s grave and “invenit bufones horribiles in puteo” [qtd in 403; find horrible toads in the filth]; other citations from medieval works on death could be provided virtually without end, but here I will offer only one more, from what will be the central text of the remainder of this essay, “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes.” At their moment of rhetorical triumph, the worms brag to the body about the hosts of other vermin that accompany them:

Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,

Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,

Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,

Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,

Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,

Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,

Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.

The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon,

The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake,

The toad, the mole, and the scorpion,

The viper, the snake, and the adder,

The toad, the ant, and the crab,

The spider, the maggots [note! the only plural?], and the newt, kin,

The water leech, and the others are not far behind.

The list’s bravura excessiveness promises proliferation without end. At this point Body gives up its efforts to hold onto itself; confronted with so many mouths, it knows itself helpless, food for a host of others, flowing piece by piece into a host of hungry abysses, as it always has, from the moment it entered the world.

Wormfood: Abysses Swallowing Abysses. Part I.

c13087-36Today I offer my essay’s introduction (first draft!) with the hope of providing the next section tomorrow or Friday. The bulk of the rest of the essay will be a discussion of “A Disputacion Betwyx þe Body and Wormes” (IMEV ref.) (text and translation), largely, I think, through a close appreciation of the poem’s three illustrations of the body’s conversation with its worms.

What follows has its most immediate origin on Feb. 4th, when I posted the following to Facebook:

Feb. aim: Pervert medieval death/worms poetry by reading it amorally/ecologically. Not memento mori, but reminder that we’re all food. 5k words and a March 1st deadline says I can do it. [next comment] My task is to write an essay on “abyss” for a special issue on ecomaterialisms. I’m thinking the word right now in terms of mise en abyme, in this case, appetites within appetites within appetites, not infinite–because nothing’s infinite–but very large, and acentric, the closest thing absolute immanence offers by way of infinity. [next comment] Here’s the cool thing about taking ABYSS as MISE EN ABYME: this is a DEPTHLESS ABYSS, not one that promises chthonic secrets or surging secrets from below but rather FLATNESS, ONTOLOGICAL EQUALITY.

And here it is!

Death is life for another. I don’t mean that life will conquer death, that death will come to a stop, as in Paul’s “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Rather, death means the flourishing of others, swallowers who are not an abstract victory but rather a material swarm of worms and other vermin, who will also be swallowed by certain birds, “wormes corrupcioun” as Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles puts it: a meshwork of appetite in which even the agents of corruption, the supposed ultimate eaters of the grave, will themselves be food in turn. If worms are food too, there is no one victory over death, but rather as many victories–and as many defeats–as there are appetites.

The editors tasked me with writing about “the abyss.” I thought immediately of death, the “deepest pit” according to Job 17:16, where, as one twelfth-century poem has it, the dead “ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides” [fall into the depth like stones]. In this imagery, death is a deep hole, a channel leading perhaps to rebirth–as Jonah experienced when he emerged from the whale’s gullet–or to hell’s absolute darkness or hell’s mouth, a site of constant eating and cooking, most notoriously, or hilariously, in Raoul de Houdenc’s Songe d’Enfer, where “sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery — green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce” (17). This is a singular abyss, one perhaps with many entrances or, if you like, many mouths, but still finally one, dreamed up to horrify humans, or dreamed up out the horror of individual humans at the loss of their own subjectivity or foundation. This abyss is the one great mouth that will swallow us all.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey’s criticism opens up a less anthropocentric abyssal vision. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic’s objection to Milton’s “and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide” (Paradise Lost IV.76-77). How, asked the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains:

in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.

I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey’s formulation. From the perspective of the the subject being swallowed up an abyss, of course the abyss is grand; but the swallowing abyss may think little of what it consumes, and it may itself feel not so grand, so immeasurable, so abyssal. For it too will be swallowed up. Each abyss is subject to the appetites of other abysses. No abyss is final.

De Quincy’s vision of abysses swallowing each other, without end, center, and certainly without reference to one final great abyss–death, Hell, or something even deeper–thus presents abyssal appetites as a kind of mise en abyme of appetite and vulnerability or even just availability. Here, mise en abyme, a term famously borrowed by Andre Gide from medieval heraldry, should not be understood as describing internal duplication (the “play within a play”) or infinite iteration (as with an object placed between two mirrors); it should not be understood, in a postmodern, correlationist manner, as a trope of foundationlessness or the inaccessibility of any final guarantee of meaning. Here, as much inspired by the worms of death as by de Quincey, I mean mise en abyme in a materialist, nonanthropocentric, ateleological sense, as a way of acknowledging that no one appetite has final priority, and that nothing escapes the condition of vulnerability to others, a condition Derrida so usefully called the “nonpower at the heart of power,” the “not be[ing] able” to elude being made use of by others.

I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life’s end….

#occupythemiddleages “God Spede the Plough”


I couldn’t have done better on purpose. Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I set out to join a couple ten thousand of our Union allies to march on Wall Street. Earlier that day, in my medieval senior seminar on eating, I taught Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, Piers Plowman B.6 (the “Hunger” passus), and “God Spede the Plough”. I told the students I’d be starting my office hours early so I could get out for the protest, gave a bit of CUNY-specific context about my going (I pointed to the blackboard and said, this one here, it’s ok, but you know it’s about the only decent blackboard on this floor), and then stymied an incipient discussion about contemporary politics.

Not that that did much good. What ensued was necessarily political. Everything(?) is, anyhow (always historicize! says the one; always de-correlationize says the other; sometimes they speak together), and it can’t help but be when we’re reading medieval texts about peasants. For Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, for example, I asked the students why Chaucer had the Plowman work for free; why he omitted the coercions of the landowners; and why the second line of the portrait links him with “donge”: here, I said, is an image that’s at once one of production and disgust, delight in food (which the peasant brings) and disgust at our reliance on the body and the labor of peasants (remember, I said, who would have been reading this text: not the 99%).

Then “God Spede the Plough.” Here’s the first stanza translated:

As I walked myself over wide fields

When men began to plow (“ere”) and sow,

I saw how quickly farmers hastened

with their beasts and plow all in a row.

I stood and saw the beasts well yoked/used

To plow the land that was so tough;

Then to a farmer I said this saying,

“I pray to God, may the plow prosper.”

First I suggested that the last line, repeated at the end of each of the poem’s 12 stanzas, might be operating like Shakespeare’s “Brutus is an honorable man.” Watch, I said, how the context changes the meaning of this only apparently innocuous line.

Then: who is this I and why do we need him? Why does the voice of the farmer require an intermediary? Spivak proved to be useful here: I proposed that the text thematizes the impossibility of hearing peasant voices directly. As in “French” feminism, the peasant cannot speak in this system and be heard as a peasant. Notably, the last stanza (ll. 89-96) shows this witnessing “I” completely missing the point of what he had heard. From the third to the eleventh stanzas, the farmer complains that peasants work, and work, and work, and one after another the rich show up to demand their cut. The land may be tough, but what’s worse are the rich. Yet the final stanza, missing the entire point of the complaint, offers nothing better than be of good cheer. The event has not happened.

I focused on this stanza:

“To paye the fiftene ayenst our ease,

Beside the lordys rente of our londe —

Thus be we shepe shorne, we may not chese,

And yet it is full lytell understonde.

Than bayllys and bedellis woll put to their hande

In enquestis to doo us sorwe inough,

But yf we quite right wele the londe;

‘I praye to God, spede wele the plough.'”

And yet it is full lytell understonde: the line teaches itself, yes?

I led them through two translations of the last 4 lines. The obvious reading: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow unless we do right by the land: ‘I pray to God, may the plow prosper.'” In a classic damned if you do/don’t sentiment, the farmer says they’ll be fleeced either way: if they prosper, the priest and friars and nobles will reduce them to penury; if they don’t prosper, they’ll be arrested for not paying their rents.

Another translation, with slightly different punctuation: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow; but if we totally abandon the land, I pray to God, may the plow prosper.” The complaint’s now a threat: do wrong by us, haul us off to jail, and you will all starve. You need us. We are many; you are few.

Then I returned to Monday’s class, when I taught Wynnere and Wastoure (translation here). Here’s a closed argument between a miserly and spendthrift noble about who better serves the kingdom and their own souls. What their debate leaves out are are the workers whose efforts–not Winner’s–stuff the granges to the bursting point. For this debate, workers are only subjects of charity, there to get by as best they can on the leftovers of Waster’s excess.

If we read Wynnere and Wastoure from the anamorphic perspective of “God Spede the Plough,” we see the truth of the matter: both these nobles are wasters. Both sponge off the labor of others. In sum: class means class war. À bas the 1%!

And then, not having taught a political class at all, I went to the protest.

294508_2344980178503_1069963695_2689308_915535336_n(here I am with my colleague Samir Chopra: some of you may want to read his most recent book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents)

(and a big tip of the hat to “Vellum” for the twitter tag #occupythemiddleages)

Nothing But Flowers: On Chaucer’s ‘Former Age’

Alexander encounters Fol 209 versoOver the past week, I’ve been working on a piece on Chaucer’s “The Former Age” (Middle English; translation), primitivism, and pigs. I need 5000 words by July 20th for an anthology on Chaucer and animals.’But wait!’ some of you will say a few months from now, ‘Didn’t you already do that in your book?’

Well, yes. Sort of. But this is my chance to do it right. To slow it down. To spread it out.Most of ‘The Former Age’ comes from somewhere else; not this line though:

They [the people of that age] eten mast hawes & swych pownage

“But wait!” you say, because you’re kind of a pedant: “aren’t references to vegetarian nut-eaters, like, everywhere in the classical and medieval tradition of the Golden Age?” You start to quote Petrarch at me, and, being a pedant myself, I cut you off: “…and Ovid; and Cicero; and Jean de Meun; and Chaucer himself. I get it. The question isn’t the nuts. The question’s how we get from Chaucer’s own translation of Consolation II.v, “they were wont lyghtly to slaken hir hungir at even [at evening: this is from Nicholas Trevet’s commentary] with accornes of ookes,” to “the people of the Former Age ate like pigs.”‘

And now you’re silent, not because I silenced you, but because I’m sick of this conceit.

My key point: for Christians, pigs are only for eating. To say that the people of this age eat in the woods like pigs is to say they “eete nat half ynough” (don’t eat half enough), like any number of distressed knights (Orfeo, Partenopeu, etc.) who go about on hands and knees grobbing for what they can; it is also to say that they are like beasts, and especially like the beasts meant only for our eating. We’re a long way from praising these people for their asceticism, and we’re a lot closer to pity or contempt (h/t Andy Galloway for this reference).

And see elsewhere in Chaucer, where Griselda’s water-drinking (CT IV.215), a topos of medieval primitivism, opens her to Walter’s exploitation; and the poor widow of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, whose ascetic diet (VII 2836-46) incites our (clerical) admiration even as it leaves her lodged in nature, nearly voiceless and animalized (VII 4570-80).In February, I asked my undergrads whether the people of The Former Age really had no wealth for conquerors, whether we should believe that “tyraunts [would not] putte hem gladly nat in pres / No wildnesse ne no busshes for to winne”?

The students got it right away. The people had no gold, no wealth, no cities, no linen, no delicacies; but, one said, they had their bodies. And for some tyrants, that’s enough.

So: for now, I plan to go at this via four lines:

  1. other 14th-century English works where humans who refuse to eat pigs get treated like pigs. By this I mean stories like this one (lines 361-96) or this one (lines 487-530), where the child Jesus turns transforms a bunch of Jewish children (in the latter version, hiding in an oven!) into pigs;
  2. the manuscript context. ‘The Former Age’ survives in two manuscripts, one of which also includes Lydgate’s “Churl and the Bird” and The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep: what are the animal networks of this manuscript as a whole?;
  3. the exploitation and animalization of the people of the Golden Age, especially in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. I’m inspired by Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, on the Fortunate Isles, mistaken for Paradise by the pagans. Isidore seems to mean the Canary Islands (“situated in the Ocean, against the left side of Mauretania,” trans. from here), which were exploited in earnest, as I understand it, beginning in the early fourteenth century. Did Christian Europe’s characterization of the Guanches have anything to do with the Golden Age tradition? How were these encounters received in England? Or perhaps by Chaucer, during his Iberian travels?;
  4. and finally, perhaps most ambitiously, the encounter of Alexander and Dindimus, King of the Brahmans, (see also: here and many, many other places), the Middle Age’s most well-known vegetarian, paradisical people, whom Alexander repeatedly calls beasts. He says to the Gymnosophists that if everyone were equal, then we would be like animals; see also lines 858 and 892, and 904. Basically: the Brahmans have abandoned their responsibility to the human, and this pisses Alexander off. I intend to argue that the poetic gaze of ‘The Former Age’ looks on these people like Alexander looking on the Brahmans, that this gaze has stumbled into another, less anthropocentric way of being in and with the world, and that it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.

My work on animals has largely, deliberately avoided discourses of the animalization and colonialism. Here I think of Cary Wolfe’s “so long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well” (Animal Rites 8). This essay means to repair that fault by examining a text and a textual tradition that at once participates in discourses of animalization and offers a posthuman critique of animalization’s violence.

There’s work to be done, and any suggestions will be cheerfully, gratefully received.
(image from Bodley 264, a manuscript containing a French Alexander romance and, beginning at f. 209v, the sole exemplar of the Middle English alliterative Alexander and Dindimus, whose illustrations (209v; 210r; 211r; 212r; 213r; 213v; 214v; 215r; 215v) could use further study, especially in the ecocritical mode as exemplars of “green men” or “wodwose”: for more, and for a kind of presiding spirit for this project, see Lorraine K. Stock))
(blog post title from here)