Briefly Noted: Monumental Wildmen, an under-researched conundrum, or “Take your stinking paws off me…”

4524150260_d508fca679I’ve been on the hunt, seeking images of the story of Nicholas and the Three Clerks. Most show–yawn–the resurrection; some show the moment before the murder; and some, the ones I want, show the murderer on the verge of stunning the clerks with the dull side of an ax, as one would stun a cow or a pig prior to slitting its throat. And, yes, thank you, I’ve just discovered the existence of Karl Meisen’s Nikolauskult und Nikolausbrauch im Abendlande, which will save me heaps of work.

I’m glad, though, to be so tardy in finding Meisen. Had I already known his book, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of today’s consultation of William Frederick Creeny’s A Book of Fac-Similes of Monumental Brasses on the Continent of Europe, With Brief Descriptive Notes (Norwich, 1884). I found my Nicholas image in the lower border of the fourteenth-century engraving commemorating Bishops Burchard de Serken and John de Mul, from Lübeck Cathedral. So, thanks much, G. G. Coulton and your skimpy annotations for compelling me to track down Creeny.

Here I also found a set of wildmen on the lower border of an enormous commemorative brass for two fourteenth-century bishops, Godfrey and Frederic de Bulowe, dated 1375. For my small flickr set, see here.

Why bishops should be commemorated with several wild men, shown at dinner, in majesty, and in the act of abduction, I don’t know. Apparently such things are not uncommon. Still, I don’t think I’ll come close to understanding the Middle Ages, or, at least, the fourteenth century, until I understand why wildmen? Why here? Why then? And, pace this, why so civilized? Am I faced with some kind of Wodwoserie?

(when I say “under-researched,” I mean I’ve under-researched it. Who knows? Everyone else, I suppose, who has looked at something more recent than Bernheimer)

Briefly Noted: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals

4161743913_ac55ece3c9There’s excitement a-cloven-foot for the Ann Vendermeer and Jeff Vandermeer’s forthcoming Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals.

The Manticore? Not kosher. Kosher? The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which we all know from Mandeville:

and þare growez a maner of fruyte grete as gourdes; and, when it es rype, þai open it and fyndez þerin a beste with flesch and blude and bane, and it es lyke to a lytill lambe withouten wolle. And men of þat cuntree etez þat beste, and þe fruyt also. And þat es a grete meruaile. 3. Of þat frute I haue eten. Neuerþeles I said þam þat me thoght it na grete meruaile, for in my cuntree I said þam ware treesse berand a fruyte þat becommez briddez flyand, þe whilk men callez Bernakes, and þer es gude mete of þam; and þase þat fallez in þe water liffez and fliez furth, and þase þat fallez on þe land dyez. And, when I had talde þam þis, þai meruailed þam gretely þeroff.

And there grows a kind of fruit great as gourds, and when it is ripe, they open it and find in it a beast with flesh and blood and bone, and it is like a little lamb without wool. And the men of that country eat that beast, and the fruit also. And that is a great marvel. Of that fruit I have eaten. Nevertheless I said to them that I thought it was not a great marvel, for in my country, I said, there were trees bearing a fruit that becomes a flying bird, which men call Barnacles, and the meat is good; and those that fall into the water live and fly forth, and those that fall on the land die. And when I told them this, they marveled greatly about it.

I’m a fan of eschatological Leviathan promises, myself. Leviathan is “a delicacy to be served to the pious at the end of time, to compensate them for the privations which abstaining from the unclean fowls imposed upon them,” as the “real purpose” of Leviathan

“is to be served up as a dainty to the pious in the world to come. The female was put into brine as soon as she was killed, to be preserved against the time when her flesh will be needed. The male is destined to offer a delectable sight to all beholders before he is consumed. When his last hour arrives, God will summon the angels to enter into combat with the monster. But no sooner will leviathan cast his glance at them than they will flee in fear and dismay from the field of battle. They will return to the charge with swords, but in vain, for his scales can turn back steel like straw. They will be equally unsuccessful when they attempt to kill him by throwing darts and slinging stones; such missiles will rebound without leaving the least impression on his body. Disheartened, the angels will give up the combat, and God will command leviathan and behemot to enter into a duel with each other. The issue will be that both will drop dead, behemot slaughtered by a blow of leviathan’s fins, and leviathan killed by a lash of behemot’s tail.”

Ultimately, though, I’m a bit sad that the book has to be about eating and slaughter, and I’m reminded of nothing so much as Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica, which catalogs animals and then, like a good dietetic manual, concludes each entry by remarking on their edibility.

(thanks Marty Shichtman for the heads up on the Kosher Guide! Manticore image from here:


Who’s Your Daddy? Bestiality and Baptism

3287837195_a514feb114I’m in the midst of an editing marathon right now, but to let you know I’m still alive, I’ll share this.

In “Les Cynocéphales: Étude d’une tradition tératologique de l’Antiquité au XIIe s” (Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 24 (1981): 117-29, at 123, Claude Lecouteux speaks about how the question of the necessity of baptism made monsters a theological topic. For monsters born from bestiality, baptism was generally required:

Ainsi dit l’ancien rituel romain suivi par de nombreux rituels provinciaux. Toutefois, certain théologiens, s’appuyant sur Aristote, distinguaient si un homme or une femme avait eu commerce avec une bête; dans le premier cas, le monstre issue d’un tel accouplement devait être baptisé sous condition car c’était peut-être un homme; il ne pouvait l’être dans le second cas, car il n’en était certainement pas un. Depuis qu’on ne croit plus à la fécondité de telles unions, le Droit Canon a été modifié sur ce point.

This is what’s said by the ancient Roman ritual, followed by many provincial rituals. However, certain theologians, relying on Aristotle, distinguished between whether a man or a woman had had “commerce” with a beast; in the first case, the monster issued from such a coupling should be baptized conditionally because it was perhaps a human; it couldn’t be so in the second case, as it was certainly not human. Since the fertility of such unions is no longer believed in, Canon Law has been modified on this point.

He cites Lucius Ferraris, Bibliotheca canonica, ed. Bucceroni (Rome, 1885), volume I, p. 499. Unfortunately, I’m having some trouble tracking down the appropriate passage. However, thanks to the dubious gift of Google Books, I did find this, which speaks of a certain “Tractatus de Baptismo,” which considers a “monstrum genitum ex muliere et bruto, tum etiam ex viro et bruto femella, quod Auctor ibi possibile ponit, per nos impossibile praedicari.” There’s science again, stepping in our fun. Since my school skimps on research money, and since the online PL has recently stopped being useful (the baleful hand of Migne chills us even now), and since I’m honestly too busy to write this post, I can’t track this down any further, at least right now (although Suzanne Magnanini’s treatment of monstrous generation might be useful). But maybe you know something? Or maybe you’re just amused by an odd legal tidbit.

Mothers (and Giants) to Think Back Through

2343765663_62c5889efc_bMaybe you know what to do with the Arthurian opening of the Wife of Bath’s tale. I don’t, not quite, but then again, I’ve only just started my path towards planting my flag on some portion of Chauceriana. I found one answer in Patricia Clare Ingham’s “Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.1 (2002) 34-46, but I’m sorry to say I found it more interesting than convincing. I’m sure the fault is my own. Ingham argues on behalf of the pastoral against its critics, who condemn it for its occlusions of material realities. In her hands, the pastoral and other utopian fantasies of the time before the proliferation of “halles, chambres, kichenes, boures / citees, burghes, castels, hye toures / Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes” (3.869-71) become a site of fantasy for the conquered and therefore a way to read past the conquering, dominant culture to otherwise lost voices. However, although a British Arthur is always a Welsh hero, although there’s Celtic myth and memory in the loathly lady, the sovereignty hag, or whatever you want to call her, and although “Britons” (3.858) could be Welsh, I just can’t hear the Welsh in the Wife’s Tale. Maybe I don’t have my ear pressed hard enough to the ground.

What I do sense are incubi, now exorcised by the friars, and the elf-queen, all of whom, inspired by Ingham, I read as a site of fantasy. As much as we love Gowther’s father, his fourteenth-century fame barely rates in comparison to the cultural dominance of the incubi of the Albina legend. In a story that was translated from Insular French into Middle English, Latin, and Welsh–and what follows is a summary of one version–a Greek princess and her twenty-nine sisters plot to murder kings whom their father, a more powerful king, wants them to marry. Betrayed by the youngest sister, the remaining sisters are sent into exile on a rudderless boat, which drifts to an island christened Albion, after the oldest sister, Albina. After living for a time on a vegetarian diet, the sisters rejuvenate themselves with wild game and grow lustful. Their lust attracts incubi, by whom the sisters engender gigantic children. The children then breed with their mothers, and everyone continues interbreeding. Thus the island fills up with giants, who fight with each other so viciously that by the time Brutus arrives, 270 years later, only 24 giants remain, including a giant named Gogmagog who tells Brutus their history.

For a tale dominated by Guinevere, the voices of wives, widows, and maidens, and by an magical crone, I want Albina and her sisters to be its first gynocentric model of rule. It’s a stretch, but I also want Albina and her sisters to be the “ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo” (3.992) that the rapist sees fleetingly “under a forest syde.” I want Albina and her children to be an alternate genealogy for the Wife, one that’s traced backed to a founding mother. After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage (think here of the women in the prologue, so many of whom–okay, two–are named Alys); nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.

In essence, I want to trapdoor Ingham; but mainly I want to watch the Wife trapdoor everyone else. I want to read the first line of the tale, “In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour” (3.858) not as “In the old days, the time of King Arthur” but as “In the days Arthur would have considered old,” the time when in fact “this land fulfild of fairye” (3.859). After all, so far as I know (folklorists? Arthurian specialists?), in Arthur’s time the land was mainly full of knights, who sometimes encountered a scattered a fairy or two like Gromer Somer Joure or a faux fairy like Bertilak; for throngs of fairies, we need to go back to Albina’s day. Following Ingham, we might be able to recover Welsh resistance in this monstrous origin; but I think we can follow this back still further, to the Wife’s own desires. What that would get us I don’t know yet (please don’t say the presymbolic Maternal!).

Hell, I don’t know if I’m just recapitulating something that’s been said 100 times already.

But, correcting for the nobility, I can’t help but hear the Wife in this:

My fair sustres, ful weel ȝe knowiþ þat þe kyng oure fadir, vs hath reprouyd, schamed & dispised, for encheson to make vs obedient vn-to oure housbandes; but certes þat schal y neuere, whiles þat I lyve, seth þat I am come of a more hyere kynges blod þan my housband is.

And I’m not even sure I have to correct for the high kindred of Albina, since, after all, the Wife is so puffed up that “in all the parisshe wife ne was ther noon / that to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; / and if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she / that she was out of alle charitee” (1.449-52). And, if I can sense Albina in the tale’s own prologue, maybe I can account for an episode that–maybe–doesn’t get the respect it deserves. What the next step would be, I don’t know yet.
(conversations continue below, and much excellence to read that merits more conversation: the Carnivalesque; Publishing and Our Discontents; the Frenchness of English Jews; Mary Kate on monsters and resistances to knowledge; and, of course, Eileen’s mother of a post and its gigantic thread, “On the Virtues (and Loves) of Beautiful Singularities”: all great stuff)

(image scanned from the delightful English Popular Art of Margaret Lambert and Enid Marx.


Limiters = Friars. She’s digging at Hubert with that line, but also echoing a standard anti-fraternal critique of the friars as a horde (see the excellent Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton UP, 1986, but also see Deleuze and Guattari on the horror of the Horde in Thousand Plateaus). Might even push at friars in their missionary aspect here, which is, of course, a kind of precolonial aspect (the avant garde). If my hunches hold, this is how they’re used in Southern France against the ‘Cathars,’ how they’re used, vainly, in the Fraternal travels to the East. I want to imagine a real difference in terms of models of taking land between the friars (the new model) and the (12th-century) monks (the ‘old’ model), but I don’t know where to take this…

But, Tom, you might also wonder: what about Arthur’s kids? And where are children, more generally, in the Cant Tales? What happens to them? Paging Dan Kline…they’re murdered, sacrificed, raped, and, yes, a few turn out well, but overall, I think of the CT’s children as nodes of pathos.


I remember reading only two pieces on the loathly lady. Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37.4 (2003): 329-45….and if my memory of my readings in Loomis holds, this does seem a bit…Loomis-y. E.g., Carter discovers the Triple Moon goddess in the wyf, maide, and widow at the court when the rapist returns. Other parts of the article are much, much better than this. Also Manuel Aguirre, “The Riddle of Sovereignty,” The Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 273-282. According to my notes, nothing about Wales or the Britons in either one.

PCI, who’s been forced to blog!, given your current projects, you’ve no doubt read/encountered Lynn Arner, “The Ends of Enchantment: Colonialism and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 48.2 (2006) 79-101? Again, if my notes haven’t betrayed me, Arner thinks you over-emphasize hybridity in Anglo-Welsh relations and lose the coercive aspect of hybridization…but this isn’t how I remember, for example, Sovereign Fantasies (which I used for an inhuman Avowyng reading) (and I think Arner mis-steps by arguing for the barbarity of Bertilak’s castle, when it would have been much easier, and possibly more interesting, to work with it as a utopian fantasy at the heart of the colonial wilderness, as if travelers to Shangri-La had discovered, not some Orientalized dreamworld, but instead a cleaned-up version of London).


Not that you need my approval, but I love the new project. I can’t think offhand of any treatments of the important Newfangledness topos (except perhaps as a negative image of Dean’s World Grown Old), and certainly nothing, then, that treats it as a site of ambivalence, of desire, or even, if you want to go there, the objet petit a. But given that you’re pushing enchantment, probably don’t want to do that!

do more with what seems to me similarity between the effacement of the Welsh as colonized subject (taken seriously rather than critiqued for their ‘complicity’ with English colonization–when I was first working on this material, the conventional wisdom about Welsh as colonized was that they weren’t really a “unified” group, but rather folk with particular loyalty to their locality)and the effacement of the Welsh in much (but not all) writing on the ‘loathly lady’ as a “celtic” motif.

This sounds fascinating, and I hope it finds a home someday. Perhaps my problem was looking to the article to fill in some gaps in my Wife of Bath knowledge (as I transform myself into a Chaucerian, at least for this semester). If I wanted, however, to turn on the Carter and Aguirre, above, and no doubt others (thinking of the notes in the TEAMS Gawain volume), to have the Wife of Bath be only one piece of a larger critique of the effacement of the Welsh, your approach sounds very, very useful.

I find the Albion material fascinating, but more far removed from traditions of sovereignty, although now that you mention it, I can’t quite recall why I think that

Yeah, hmmm….I tend to think of the Albion material as a (and I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere above) place to think through, encounter, fall into, be swallowed up by (choose your metaphor) problems and fascinations of sovereignty. Sort of like the hag, but not as easily relegated to some chthonic/sylvan Other, and perhaps with a more complex relationship to eros. – See more at:

Someone get a medievalist! Here Come the Morlocks!

_42207552_evolution4A few quick spurs to conversation, as that’s all I have in me right now. Spurs, that is.

Get ready! You may have run across a recent assertion by Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics that some 100,000 years from now the human species will diverge into two species: one tawny-hued, beautiful so long as you go in for the standards of Western fashion magazines, tall, and deep-voiced (if men); the other will be squat, hairy, unhealthy, and, like Mike Tyson, will possess unnervingly squeaky voices. The taller people will have tenure; the squat people will be happy to grade unending piles of ungrammatical personal essays about shopping and whatever is the future’s equivalent of beer bonging. You get the picture.

Ewok bonging, maybe.

So far as I can determine, Curry’s science is risibly bad. You might look here, or here, or here, or here, or, well, here.

I thank the scientists for kneecapping Curry’s hypothesis so quickly, but I wonder if Curry would even have proposed his fantastical future had he listened to the medievalists. Why not throw ourselves in the breach? Those of us who know our chivalric narrative or Paul Freedman are all too familiar with long-limbed, barrel-chested, flaxen- haired Adonises whose bodies incarnate the justness of their rule over peasants whose bodies, by contrast, more often than not hideously burst at the seams with animal features. Granted, some of these beautiful men were huge and green (SGGHulk? G. C., can you read me?), and some of the squat untermenschen were actually, well, also quite large:

The Carle the knyghttus can beholde,
Wytt a stout vesage and a bolde.
He semyd a dredfull man:
Wytt chekus longe and vesage brade;
Cambur nose and all ful made;
Betwyne his browus a large spane;
Hys moghth moche, his berd graye;
Over his brest his lockus lay
As brod as anny fane;
Betwen his schuldors, whos ryght can rede,
He was two tayllors yardus a brede.

Now I may be selling our profession a bit short here, but it seems we can do at least this: if a medievalist had mapped out the familiar discursive boundaries for Curry by loading him down with Yvain and Aucassin et Nicolette and, why not, The Time Machine, Curry might have kept his ideas at the pub, where they belonged. My students this semester, may they be touched by his noodly appendage, have often been stopped short by the idea that Homer and Chaucer–or the Franklin–simply didn’t make up the stories they told. The plots might not be only theirs, but the words are, mostly, so that’s where we apply our critical pressure. I’ve eased them out of their convictions of the supreme value of originality by pairing Homer with Virgil and Virgil with the Eneas and the Franklin with Marie de France and letting them know that similar narratives reward similar heuristics. And, by the end of semester, they’ll at least know how to cow some of these standard narratives with suspicious looks and, I trust, proper comma usage. Would that Curry had also taken my class!

I was urged to this post, in part, by reading Michael Calabrese’s Performing the Prioress: ‘Conscience’ and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. While I can’t offer any kind of detailed critique–I skimmed the article today right before teaching the Prioress in the hopes of jarring my pedagogy in a different direction–I can say that it intersected nicely with some of the longstanding debates about ethics we’ve had on this blog. You might want to read it yourself, but now, for your debating pleasure, I quote:

In this complex, volatile context of edu-business, medievalists must monitor their ethical projects in relation to the evolving curricular imperatives that are redefining the university’s relationship to twenty-first-century culture. As we negotiate this relationship we should consider, ultimately, an Arnoldian disinterestedness from contemporary issues of race, class, and gender for fear that if we too closely link the medieval and the modern in relation to these politics, we will be packaging our profession for the architects of the corporate university who will have figured out, finally, what it is that “we do” and will blithely assimilate it to the university of excellence, an institution interested in producing students just politically sensitive enough to facilitate the smooth operation of global capitalism as it forges its “solutions for a small planet.

To study hatreds, violences, and injustices with the announced purpose of creating a “positive response” to a world that licenses “repression and violence” is to conduct a politics of affect, dangerous not so much in its utopianism as in its re-definition of literary studies, a redefinition that the corporate university of the twenty-first century, operating like a state-run HMO, will happily assimilate into its own economic and social ends. A humanities that displays civic utility is, as Plato remarked long ago, good for the state. Yet where many critics today see Plato to be a utopian and even (as Bertrand Russell saw him) a fascist, these same critics do not see the dangers to academic freedom that political criticism can spawn.

Surely my critical machine isn’t helping the fascists by stopping future Curries in their tracks. Narrative analysis never hurt anyone, but it seems, maybe, there’s a danger in doing too much ethical performance and directed dislodging of prejudices. Thoughts?