Medieval tidbits: Corpse-carrying and a medieval combover

2629854536_49d370f04b_bI’ve been reading Ralph “Bocking’s” Life of the thirteenth-century English Bishop Richard of Chichester, edited and translated by David Jones here, seeking some context for an often-misconstrued bit where Richard mourns the deaths of innocent animals as he sees them taken past him to be slaughtered. So far, what I’ve encountered is typical for any saint’s life: he’s generous to the poor, humble in his dress, intolerant of witchcraft, of dancing and selling in churchyards, and of Jews building new synagogues. Ho-hum.

But, below, as the title promises, a Sabbath treat: corpse-carrying and a medieval combover. For today’s peculiar medieval tidbits, you’re welcome.

He also compelled some citizens of Lewes, who had violently forced a thief out of a church where he had taken refuge and hanged him, to dig up the thief, or rather his decaying corpse for he was now dead and buried, and carry him to church on their shoulders (189)

Burgenses quoque Lewenses, qui quendam furem qui ad ecclesiam confugerat violenter ab eadem extractum suspenderant, ipsum furem iam mortuum et supultum, immo ipsius cadaver putridum exhumare coegit et ad ecclesiam propriis humeris deferre. (113)

When a man of noble lineage, who was a rector of a church in the diocese of Norwich, together with a great and noble knight, in the presence of the blessed Richard approached the local bishop on some matter of business, he was wearing a costume unbecoming to a clerk. The holy man saw the bishop suppress his feeling, but his own zeal for justice compelled him to do otherwise and he rose up and upbraided the clerk, saying, ‘Is it fitting that you should appear before your bishop attired thus? I tell you that, if you belonged to my diocese, I would punish you severely.’ Saying this, he loosened the fillet which the clerk was wearing around his head and said, ‘Are you not content with the work of your Creator that you adorn yourself thus?’ Moreover, the clerk had combed his hair forward over his head so that he would not appear tonsured and the saint, who was ‘bald before and clean’ according to the Old Law, plucked a hair from his own head and said, ‘Perhaps I am to be criticised because I am tonsured?’ (190)

Cum rector cuiusdam ecclesie Norwicensis diocesis generosi stemmatis sociato sibi quodam milite magno et nobili, pro quibusdam negotiis rogaturus, loci diocesanum, presente beato Ricardo, in habitu minus clericus decente veniret. Videns sanctus episcopum loci dissimulare, ipsemet zelo justitie compellente non valens, surrexit et, ipsum qui venerat reprehendens, dixit, ‘Siccine coram episcopo tuo et tali cultus scemate te decet apparere? Scias quod, si de nostra fores diocesi, graviter in te animadverterem.’ Et hec dicens, manu propria infulam quam capite gestabat dissoluit, dicens, ‘Non es contentus de Creatoris tui opere, nisi tu in teipso superaddas?’ Occipitis quippe pilos ad anteriorem capitis partem retorserat, ne calvus appareret, extratoque sanctus a capite proprio pilleo dixit (erat enim secundum Veteris Legis sententiam recalvaster et mundus), ‘Num,’ inquid, ‘quia calvus sum, reprobandus appareo?’ (113-114)

Image, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

False Victims, Inwardly Ravening Rulers

23696853_9daa635c17In the most recent Nation Corey Robbin (BC-CUNY History Prof) reviews Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, the collection Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, and Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. On his way to arguing for the fundamentally reactionary nature of conservatism (and thus against the notion that Goldwater and his descendants have much to teach liberals about organizing), on his way to pointing out how much terminological ground the Conservatives have lost to liberals (for decades, at least, they have had to argue for “freedom” and “liberty” and “egalitarianism”), and on his way to kicking Heilbrunn down the stairs for what he diplomatically termed “sloppy…borrowed…derivative” writing (and what I might, less diplomatically, refer to our academic integrity office), Robin writes:

While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.”

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them–or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.

And soon after he writes:

[Conservatives] are aggrieved and entitled–aggrieved because entitled–and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.

This point, in part because Robin expresses it so well, hardly requires the emphasis of proof, but I could offer our friend Charlotte Allen as a perfect example. And by that I of course mean she’s merely an example.

However, my point is not to promote Robin’s brilliant review, nor to herald the nobility of CUNY (and we are all fans here of Steve Kruger, Glenn Burger, and Valerie Allen, inter alia). Rather, my point, if I want to reduce it to this, is to trapdoor another Nation review, because of course we medievalists always salivate when anyone writes “arguably for the first time in history.”

(I thus defer responsibility for what I do here to my drives.) The dynamic of “a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood” predictably conjures up the clichéd Hegelian insight that any desire for a self-sustaining, idealized identity (for example, “the human”) is necessarily going to discover itself under threat, as this continuing failure is, after all, inherent to identity-as-fetish and is, in fact, what enables it: hence my use of the phrase “discover itself” to characterize this violent phenomenology.

Robin’s “ruling class…sense of victimhood” also conjures up the structure of Christianity itself, whose Savior is a victim whose Kingdom opens most easily to the poor, the sick, prisoners, and the scorned, or to those who ascetically take on the habitus, if not the class position, of such groups. A couple of centuries later, Christianity becomes the State religion. The cognitive dissonance necessary to adapt an outsider faith to a position of dominance infinitely fascinates me, perhaps nowhere near so much as in Eusebius’s record of the effects of Constantine’s conversion. In one sermon for this period, we hear how:

Benefactors of themselves and all men, and Christ they [emperors and the secular ruling class] acknowledge as Son of God and sovereign Lord of the universe, naming Him ‘Saviour’ on monuments, and inscribing in royal characters in the middle of the city that is queen of the cities on earth an indelible record of His triumphs and His victories over the wicked.
(G. A. Williamson trans., revised by Andrew Louth, in the 1989 Penguin edition of The History of the Church, 4.17, p. 309)

With this delight in Jesus honored by emperors as a emperor-god–that is, in the style to which Roman gods and emperors had grown accustomed–any earlier scorn of Rome, any wishes for its destruction and for a new eternal city, retroactively looks less like otherworldliness and more like ressentiment (and you will observe now, if you have not already, the hoariness of my “insights”).

Looking far ahead, I slide into the exegesis of Psalms 79: 14, “exterminavit eam aper de silva, et singularis ferus depastus est eam” (The boar from the woods has banished her; and a singular wild beast hath devoured her), which interpretations passed down from Augustine and Cassiodorus understood as referencing the destruction and dispersal of the Palestinian Jews under Titus and Vespasian. In this exegesis, admiration for the power of Rome, and for the ability of Rome to do God’s will, was always polluted by a (feigned?) scorn for Rome itself; thus in his commentary on the Psalms Bruno the Carthusian impugns Titus and Vespasian with “ ‘aper de silva’ procedens, Vespasianus scilicet, qui ferus erat et immundus sordibus vitiorum, sicut aper ferum animal est et sordidum” (PL 152: 1066D; “a boar from the woods” appearing, namely Vespasian, who was savage and unclean with filthy vices, just as the boar is a savage beast and filthy). In a commentary on Habakkuk, Rupert of Deutz explains Habakkuk 2: 17 (“vastitas animalium deterrebit eos de sanguinibus hominum” (and the ravaging of beasts will terrify them because of the blood of men) through what must be a memory of Psalms 79:14: “Ut dictum, ita et factum est. Venerunt enim animalia de silva” (as it was said, so it happened. For animals came from the woods). These animals are, as usual, Titus and Vespasian, who justly destroy the Jews, “qua primi ex omnibus gentibus ausi fuerunt ad se missos prophetas et sapientes et Scribas occidere et crucifigere, flagellare in synagogis suis, et de civitate in civitatem persequi” (who had first among all peoples dared to kill the prophets, wise men, and scribes sent to them, and to crucify and beat them in their synagogues, and to pursue them from city to city). For all his desire to have such a people scorged, Rupert designates Rome as the “silva,” and characterizes the silva as a place “ubi erat multiplicitas errorum, et feri homines habitabant, sicut ferae in silva” (PL 168: 623B-C; where there were many errors, and bestial men lived, just as beasts do in the woods): this city, this center of civilization, this “queen of the cities,” is no city at all.

Monks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries upheld their social power in part by scorning the world, but they did this even as the world’s endowments swelled their estates, even as they became the financiers of Crusade (see Robert C. Stacey, “Crusades, Martyrdoms, and the Jews of Norman England, 1096-1190,” in Juden und Christen zur Zeit der Kreuzzüge, ed. A. Haverkamp. Sigmaringen, 1998, 240). Knowing this, is it enough to demystify monastic scorn of “Rome” and its emperor by pointing out the obvious, namely, that in their enjoyment of Titus and Vespasian and through their enabling of yet another destruction of Palestine, the monks are themselves the boars come from the woods? Is it enough to return to Eusebius to strip the feigned authenticity of victimhood from (certain) Christianities? Have I done enough in invoking ressentiment and Hegel? Is there enough in these gestures–to which I might add my 2005 Leeds paper on “The Christ Child and Pigs in the Oven”–to justify what I do here, to make all this something more than a precious insistence that Robin weigh down what’s already an enormous review with the detritus of my medievalist memory?

Lacking a proper conclusion, lacking even directed motion, all I can do is stop here for now.

(Creative Commons image from here.)


For ages now, I’ve wanted to write (or, rather, finish) a piece on shifting self-identification of regular clergy as sometimes poor and sometimes needing to dole out charity: I have in mind–perhaps not correctly–a sermon on the Dives et Pauper parable by the 12th-century regular canon Raoul Ardent. I’m sure that’s what underlies all my thinking in the post.

Nicola, I know we talked about this briefly just the other day, but I do want to thank you for this comment, and, at once to reassert that (of course) some situations can best be analyzed according to a victim/violator schema, and also to thank you for turning our attention to the question of the victim itself. I do wonder, however, whether the ‘reality’ is in fact “collective” responsibility. I do want to propose a slight nuance by suggesting distributed responsibility. The advantage derives from moving us past the binary and thus allowing for more complex, more adequate, and thus more helpful analysis, while still preserving the differing weights of responsibility that “collectivity” obscures. Although in our conversation I offered Reagan’s destruction of Carter’s environmental improvements to the White House (and thus Reagan’s repudiation of environmentalism and thus, given that the 80s might have been a “magic window” for halting global warming, his responsibility for lord knows how many tens or hundreds of millions of deaths in the next 15-30 years, probably including my own), Reagan’s repudiation would not have been possible, or politically efficacious, without, for example, structures of masculinity that consider environmentalism a kind of effeminacy. As an American male, I no doubt participate, or have participated to some degree, in that structure. But, again, the best analytical mode for this phenomenon and its effects is one that attends to power. Thus we must condemn Reagan, but we must also distribute responsibility. We need more guilt, not less; “distribution” should therefore not be understood as dilution. And we need that guilt to encourage us to make a space for those who can most authentically speak as victims. This goal may involve teaching people to recognize their own victimhood. – See more at:

Nature Against Itself? A Human Burden?

Here’s another story from the Aelred volume I’ve just read, here taken from his Life of Ninian:

A certain man among the folk had a pitiable son, born of his own wife. He was a sorrow to both of his parents, a source of astonishment to the people, and a horror to those who looked at him. Nature had formed him contrary to nature, with all his members turned awry. The joints of his feet were turned backward, his heels were extended forward, his back met his face while his chest was near the back of his head, and his arms were twisted so that his hands touched his elbows. What more shall I say? This pathetic figure, who had been given useless members and a fruitless life, simply lay there. With all his other limbs useless, his tongue alone remained; with it he bewailed his wretchedness and moved those who saw him to grief and those who heard him to tears. He was an unremitting sorrow to his parents, whose sadness increased daily.

At length there came into their minds the most holy Ninian’s majesty, which they had quite often experienced. Full of faith, they took up that wretched body. Approaching the relics of the holy man, they offered “the sacrifice of a contrite heart” (Ps 51:19) with floods of tears, and they persisted in their prayers faithfully until evening. Then, laying that disfigured carcass in front of the saint’s tomb, they said “Accept what we offer, O Blessed Ninian; a loathsome gift indeed, but one well suited to proving your power. We who are feeble, we who are fatigued, we who are afflicted with sorrow, we who are overcome with anguish present this to your loving-kindness. If it is a gift, surely grace is due us who offer it; if it is a burden, you who have greater power to relieve it are more capable of bearing it. Here, then, let him die or live, let him be healed or parish.” These words, or some like them, they accompanied with tears, and leaving the sick boy before the sacred relics they departed.

And behold, in the stillness of the dead of night, the wretched boy saw a man coming towards him, shining with heavenly light and resplendent with episcopal insignia. Touching his head, this man ordered him to stand up whole and to give thanks to God, his healer. When he had departed, the poor boy awoke as if from a deep sleep. With an easy movement, he twisted each limb into its natural place, and when he restored them all, he went back to his home whole and unharmed. After this he gave himself wholly to the church and to ecclesiastical discipline. First tonsured as a cleric and afterward ordained a priest, he finished his life in the service of his father. (59-61)

Sadly, CUNY gives me no online access to the PL or the CCCM, so there’s no way for me to check the translation. Nor do I have anything sustained to say about this, which represents my own weak entry into the forthcoming discussion of disability on this blog, which also bears witness to my perversity in including a “literary” example before the (welcome!) flurry of legal examples I hope to see from our guest.

First, I direct our readers to Greg Carrier’s discussion of the problematics of the “invisibility” of his own deafness. Certainly there’s no invisibility here! We have quite a different set of problems:

  • Nature, which does something against itself: can we understand this peculiar situation as an instance of debates about the naturalness of miracles?;
  • the “fruitless life,” which suggests that life has no value in itself, but that it rather attains value through being instrumentalized. But is the horror that he summons, and the self to which he gives witness, not a kind of “fruit”?;
  • the strangeness of the gift, or the burden, of the disabled child;
  • The complete abandonment of the child: “let him die or live, let him be healed or parish”;
  • the furtiveness of the healing;
  • the odd admission that this story is, charitably speaking, a reconstruction: “these words, or some like them…”;
  • the absence of his parents from the narrative after the child is “restored”: he returns home, but to what?

Really, I can only offer this to you and ask you, if you like, to engage with it in some way. In so many ways, this is just another miracle story, but the more I read it, the stranger and sadder it seems (and by ending with this word, “sadder,” I may be participating in the lachrymose history of disability, apt I believe for twelfth-century England–especially given the sad fate of the madman elsewhere in this volume (79) left to die by a riverbank–but this sadness is certainly not the whole story!).


Volume 195 of the PL has Aelred.

The Ninian life might not be in the PL; it’s certainly in Alexander Penrose Forbes’s Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern (Edinburgh, 1874), and also in Pinkerton’s Lives of the Scottish Saints (1889, using a 1789 edition. The list of the CCCM editions for Aelred look unpromising: in the first volume, Ascetic works, and then two volumes of sermons, then sermons on Isaiah. The last volume listed appeared in 2005, so perhaps there’s been more since then. – See more at:

We Learned to Love the Hard Way / You’re Going to Learn it Too

One of the books I picked up at Kzoo was an anthology of hagiography and miracles by Aelred of Rivaulx, The Lives of Northern Saints. Here we can find his version of the life of Ninnian, stories of the miracles of the saints of Aelred’s ancestral home, Hexham, and what I present to you here, the miracle of the Nun of Watton.

Some of you, perhaps most, undoubtedly already know the story. Those of you who don’t, hold onto your cowls and grip your soft bits: a Gilbertine nun, admitted as an oblate somewhere around her fourth year (and we might better say: abandoned to the nuns by her father), never quite takes to the calling. No wonder: there’s doesn’t seem to have been any institutional support in this convent for oblates (see Boswell 310 n50). She grows up to be flirty, dirty-minded, and, inevitably, she gets mixed up with a fellow–a conversus (lay brother?) a canon?–who rapes her. Their relationship, such as it is, continues, and, when she discovers herself pregnant, the man runs off. She’s beaten, imprisoned, and fettered by her scandal-fearing sisters, who top the torture off by compelling her to betray her lover, such as he was. When he’s been captured, he’s brought before his lover, who–again, under compulsion–castrates him. After the sisters throw the bloody penis in the chained sister’s face, they drive the castrate out.

My summary leaves a lot out.

A list of the stranger bits, each of which merits more attention, maybe in your Fall courses:

  • The varying translation of one of the most shocking moments, “sicut foeda sanguine in ora peccatricis projecit”: the Cistercian Pub. version (trans Jane Patricia Freeland) reads “flung them as they were–foul and covered with blood–into the face of the sinful woman”; in an exuberant, outrageous stretch, Boswell does it as “foul and bloody just as they were, [one of them] stuck them in the mouth of the sinner”; and the Gutman, splitting the difference, does is as “threw them into the mouth”;
  • The conversus rapes the nun at first, covering her mouth “lest she cry out.” But the relationship continues, and the other nuns grow suspicious because of “the sound they often heard,” which is, presumably (?), the sound of pleasure. Yet when the pregnancy’s first revealed, the nuns are all amazed;
  • The punishments the sisters initially want to inflict on the pregnant nun sound shockingly like a précis of the typical delights of martyrdom: “Zeal immediately flamed up in their bones, and, looking at each other and striking their hands together, they rushed upon her, tearing the veil from her head. Some thought she ought to be given to the flames, others that she should be flayed alive, and others that she should be put on a stake to be burned over live coals” (115; Salih, 161, also makes this point);
  • Her lover is captured as follows: he returns to the grounds of Watton, which indicates that he had not entirely abandoned his lover; he rushes at what he thinks is her; it’s one of brothers of the community, disguised with a veil [irruit in virum quem feminam esse putabat], and, for his misdirected lust, he’s beaten and taken to what Aelred describes as a “spectaculum,” a show.

The actual miracle is, of course, not the Grand Guignol of the prison: the spectaculum is not the miraculum. The miracle is the salvation of the pregnant nun from producing another of what she was, an unwanted birth. Swollen with child in a cell scarcely able to contain her bulk, gray with exhaustion, she finds relief of a sort in a dream. Archbishop Henry Murdac of York, who had overseen her oblation, appears and berates her. Thanks a lot, Henry. On the next night, he appears again, this time accompanied by two women. Murdac covers her face with his pallium, and after a while, she sees the two women carrying an infant wrapped in white silk. She feels her belly, and it’s gone slack. A miracle!

I was reading this episode on one of my flights home from Kalamazoo, and, at the same time, was aware that Pope Benedict had just reaffirmed his church’s stance on birth control (for example, see here). With Benedict’s words in my mind, I had to ask: what happened to the fetus (or infant, or parasite, &c.) of Watton? Compare this story to another, somewhat similar story Boswell translates (459-60) in which the infant’s taken to “a certain hermit…who should bring the baby up in [the BVM’s] service.” We might also recall Marie de France’s “Lai de Fresne,” or the many stories of the abandoned child who should have stayed lost (see Oedipus and ff.) But in this story, here, the two women simply leave with the baby.

This miracle is not–apparently not–an abortion. The nuns accuse her of it, but she claims, rightly, that she doesn’t know what’s become of her infant. It’s alive, somewhere, maybe: but I wonder about the silk wrapping: as sideways as such a thought is, I can’t help but be reminded of funeral wrappings (and how might a child in 12th-c. Yorkshire be buried?), or of the folds of cloth holding souls in the lap of Abraham, which could function as a sort of antechamber for souls awaiting entry into paradise (see Le Goff, Birth of Purgatory 122).

At Watton, we have, on the one hand, a miracle of astonishing naivete: pushing past a fundamental contradiction, Aelred wants to condemn abortion while maintaining compassion for what his own condemnation causes, viz., the social and emotional catastrophe of forced pregnancy and unwanted children (represented here by the nun of Watton herself and what she carries). On the other hand, we should not simply sniff at Aelred’s compassion: is it simply that he wants the impossible, judicial judgment without violence (he explains “I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shedding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy,” 117), or can we feel in his desire for the impossible, driven as it is in part by compassion, some possibility of the force of law opening up into something else? Might the law be dissolved by the mixture of Aelred’s tears with those of the pregnant oblate?

(Creative Commons photo from here)

Further Reading:
For the Latin: PL, vol 195:780-96
Other translations: John Boswell The Comfort of Strangers 452-58 (for a brief discussion, see 310)
O. Gutman in Carolyne Larrington, ed, Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook 128-33;
Other discussions Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England 152-65, which admirably treats the complexities of space in the story; and Giles Constable, “Ailred of Reivaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order,” in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978): 205-226, which I read in my pre-database days and hence do not remember: did he write about double-monasteries and scandal?