Talking Ferguson in a Medieval Classroom



Continue reading Mary Kate Hurley below, and join the conversation in the comments.

This evening’s master’s course was supposed to discuss Geraldine Heng, Richard Cole (on Jews in Old Norse Lit), and Jeffrey J Cohen. We were supposed to mop-up last week’s Mandeville class by returning to his geographic imagination and “spherical ethics,” with references to Walter of Metz (eg) and this fascinating medieval map from a Carthusian Mandeville epitome. But, as we’re a course on race and representation, I proposed that we start with 10 minutes close reading of Darren Wilson’s testimony, drawing out the connections we could make to other readings over the semester. I got the idea from David Perry, who, along with Rick Godden, developed an excellent and very welcome framework for discussing Ferguson.

Perry writes:

There are serious questions about the believability of [Wilson’s] testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.

I used this as my model, having in mind Godden’s comments on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I directed them to particular pages (212, 214, and 225). No surprise, 10 minutes turned into 45, easily, especially as students started supplying other passages from their own extracurricular reading of Wilson’s testimony (have I told you recently how great it is to teach at Brooklyn College?). I let the students run the discussion as much as I could, though I did observe that I’d seen what happens to a face when it’s punched at full force twice. This was when I was 16 and rescued from a mugging on a city bus. The rescuer smashed my mugger’s face, transforming it with two great blows from a face-shape into a quasisolid mass of mucous, blood, and spit. The brokenness and swelling endured for ages, long enough for me to spot him — a fellow student! — at my high school several days later. So let’s just say that in my experience Wilson’s face doesn’t look like the face of someone who was punched hard twice by a giant.

Students focused on the “demoniac” and animalized Muslims of the Song of Roland; they talked about how they mocked Gerald of Wales and Mandeville for their superstitions, and how they then found themselves gaping at Wilson’s comparison of Brown to a grunting “demon,” wondering what the future might say about 2014; brilliantly, they compared the 6’4″ Wilson’s grotesque self-infantalization to the Prioress’s own (But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse), which we then connected to the “child” as a grotesque core form of the “normative body,” at once innocent, helpless, perfect, and useless, the opposite of the excessive giant body. In this body politics, we wondered where there could be space for an adult body, the full subject of rights and obligations all at once?

One student referenced the following passage from Heng:

Medieval time, on the wrong side of rupture, is thus shunted aside as the detritus of a pre-Symbolic era falling outside the signifying systems issued by modernity, and reduced to the role of a historical trace undergirding the recitation of modernity’s arrival.

Thus fictionalized as a politically unintelligible time, because it lacks the signifying apparatus expressive of, and witnessing, modernity, medieval time is then absolved of the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative, without modern meaning, because occurring outside the conditions structuring intelligible discourse on, and participation in, modernity and its cultures. (263)

Linking this to other comments about time and the medieval over the course of the semester, she observed that recently (even today?), she had been told she belonged “in the Middle Ages” because she wears a head-scarf. I then built this into the way that religion — a “racial” category in the Middle Ages — continues to be raced, with many people unable or unwilling or uninterested in distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims, as if they were one and the same. I remembered how I’ve heard some people render the title of my colleague Moustafa Bayoumi’s book as On Being Young and Muslim in America.

Perry writes:

One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.

My students — many of them teachers themselves — jumped at the chance to talk about this in class. I know yours will too, and I can only hope the conversation goes as well. I made a point of thanking them for talking about it with me, and loved how this turned into an inadvertent, and melancholy, review of the course readings. Highly recommended.

Atavism: Teaching notes on Beloved

I like to give me students something to beat up on, so I started class today with this sentence from Cliffs Notes:

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the “mossy teeth,” and schoolteacher’s sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child’s ghost.

The question: what’s wrong with the word “atavistic”? How is this evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TIME works in Beloved?

25 minutes later, one saucy student demanded: “where are you going with this ‘atavistic’ stuff?”

“Hold on. Just hold on.”

I’m at that stage in my career where I’m pretty sure I could have kept it going for another 30 minutes.

But if you’re looking for a lesson plan on Beloved from someone who read it for the first time last month — in other words, if you’re kind of a fool or a bit of an ambulance chaser — then by all means read on and click you on.

I discovered, first, that although this is an advanced literature course (“History and Lit”) very few — like maybe one — of my 16 students knew what “atavistic” even meant. So I gave them some evolutionary biology, first, and explained this is “atavistic” in its technical sense, while also reminding them that it’s just plain wrong to think that “atavistic” traits are more primitive. Evolution, I insisted, does not improve things in some abstract sense; it doesn’t make things better (“for what?”): it adapts, and adaptations can sometimes be simplifications (like blind cave fish, classically).

Then I showed them some 19th-century criminology:


I gave them some modern atavism in a racist context. And I finally asked why “atavistic” was a particularly lousy word to use to denigrate someone — even white people — in a novel written by an African American about the African American experience?

The students rightly observed that the story of Schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe did NOT take place in some primitive past but in the present of 1855, where cruel white behavior against black slaves was condoned and encouraged: there’s a whole modern system set in place to make these kinds of actions possible. Given that her assailants are literally stealing her milk from her breasts, we witness here, helplessly (like Halle in the hayloft), a violent assertion of the fact that, to the slaveowners, Sethe and other slave mothers were nothing but breeding stock.

I added, what else about “atavistic”? What about the charge that certain people are more primitive than others, more likely to be evolutionary throwbacks? What about the phrase “you black apes” (here, here, here, and here).

We got it. No surprise. I didn’t belabor the point. Atavistic is a pretty lousy, stupid word to use as an insult for describing characters in at least this book.

And what about the way time functions in Beloved anyhow?

Remember, I read it for the first time last month, and am, naturally, teaching it for the first time now. I’m sure this has been covered in the criticism.

Sethe’s relationship to the past is not one of a present day person trying to grow out of something primitive. For her, the past is at once too present and too lost: too present in that she’s pummeled with it whenever she remembers (quite literally when the ghost shows up), and too lost when we see what happens between her and her mother, her connection to Africa, to the antelope dance, and to the freedom stolen from them.

I have my past easily at hand, I told the students: on my mother’s side, I can trace my ancestry  back to the seventeenth century in this country (and farther back still if I extend it to Europe). Over here, in Virginia, we owned slaves; a great great (or so) uncle — James O. B. Racer — died from wounds received at Gettysburg, fighting, I pointed out, for the wrong side. My students — many of them immigrants or second-generation Americans, many of them descended from people fleeing pogroms or the Holocaust, many of them descended from slaves — don’t have this. “Atavism” isn’t their problem: it’s that their past is either too awful and too lost.

This is one of the problems Morrison explores in Beloved, where 1855 and 1873 shift into each other, without a sign or a break, where the past might slide into the present or vice versa, where Sethe and Paul D and so on scramble and dodge to try to re/member a usable past and to try to get past the past that haunts them. The past is not backwards, here, but rather a ghost, a danger, and an absence, and the impossible desired thing.

I stopped only because we had to talk about Lucy Delaney, who, you know, teaches like a dream.

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.)

Will Wonders Never Cease: St. Erkenwald with Claustrophilia

seminar 3by KARL STEEL

First! More zombies!

Second, thanks very much to our guest bloggers (and to Jeffrey’s organizational moxie) for what’s become a brief history of large chunks of the medieval blogworld.

I’d like to think everyone at last Friday’s Claustrophilia seminar believed it a success. Thanks much to Jeffrey, George Washington University, and MEMSI for the chance to participate in it. For the interested, my paper follows:

The events of the late fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem St. Erkenwald take place in seventh-century London during the rededication of England’s pagan temples to Christianity. Deep in the greatest temple, which would become St. Paul’s, workmen unearth a gothic tomb, carved with mysterious letters.1 Prying it open, they discover an immaculate body, royally dressed. The bewildered citizens summon their bishop, Erkenwald, who speaks to the corpse, which confesses itself an ancient pagan judge, buried as a king for his righteousness, but barred as a pagan from heaven. Erkenwald weeps, accidentally baptizing the corpse, which promptly rots while its spirit ascends to paradise. Then Erkenwald and the crowds parade through London, while the bells of the city ring out about them.

With few exceptions, criticism of Erkenwald splits into political-historical or doctrinal-historical explanations, which variously locate the poem within conflicts between the City of London and Richard II, or within debates about Pelagianism, Donatism, Wyclif, and so on.2 As necessary as such critical efforts are, they defer the ‘decision’ of reading onto the text and its historical situation. Such efforts preserve the critic as just an observer, watching the text do its work; they preserve the critic from responding to the poem. Let us have an irresponsible reading practice, in the sense of refusing to let the text and its history make our decisions for us, or, in a Derridean sense, let us have a responsible reading, in which we do not feel we’ve done our duty to the poem by situating it in this or that historical struggle.3 Our response should seek to preserve the wonder that drew us and still draws us to the poem; to be just, our response should not leave us untransformed; we should be thrown by what we read.

Claustrophilia is among my allies in the hope that, in reading Erkenwald, we might not unlock it but rather lock ourselves up with it, and to it, as hands or eyes lock together, fascinated and enraptured in their meeting. Howie decries the substitution of “epistemology for phenomenology,” and insists that we need not be constrained by what he calls “the cult of the evidentiary, which would separate ‘imaginings’ from ‘reflections’” (15). Following Claustrophilia, let us intensify rather than explain,4 especially with Erkenwald, since there is perhaps no poem in Middle English that better offers itself to a Claustrophiliac reading.

Howie joins other thinkers who reconceive time as embedded instead of as a sequence in which the past is neatly and continuously swapped out for the present.5 For Howie, moments touch on one another and become moments through this touch; moments drag others behind them; they are in networks around each other in which no moment will ever quite be abandoned or ever simply be itself. In Erkenwald, we need not struggle to rethink time as topographical and interfolded—to recall Michel Serres—rather than geometrical.6 Its time is piled up, mixed, all moments touching:7 it takes place “noȝt fulle longe” [not very long] (1) after the crucifixion, yet somehow in the seventh century; the judge, asked when he had lived, answers enigmatically, interweaving dates,8 and the “New Werke” [New Work] (38) at St. Paul’s took place in the thirteenth, not the seventh, century. The alliterative christening of London’s temples preserves as much as it converts: although those of Jupiter and Juno become the churches of Jesus and James (22), the temples persist in or with the churches poetically, through the stressed J that sustains the past as a point of contact, as an echo.9 In their co-presence and non-assimilative contact with the London of Erkenwald’s day, the temples recall Howie’s “metonymic understanding of poetics…in which contiguous terms come to participate, not just semantically but also in a sense ontologically, in one another without losing their distinctness” (15).

Nowhere is Erkenwald so available for Claustrophilia as in its architecture.10 First the people of London, and then Erkenwald, penetrate into the foundations of St. Paul’s. They are enclosed within a space that receives them. In the depths of the temple, a tomb emerges into their midst, drawn up from the ground.11 Bordered with letters whose sense will never be deciphered, enclosing and giving up a judge whose name the poem never reveals, the tomb reserves the fullness of its own being to itself. It is paradigmatically a space that, to quote Howie, “resist[s] the gaze of its public even as it offers itself to this public” (13).12

Erkenwald arrives and locks himself away to pray “to kenne / Þe mysterie of þis meruaile þat men opon wondres” [to know the mystery of this marvel that men wonder upon] (124-25), and, his prayer granted, he leads a Spiritus Domini mass. His increasingly agitated questioning, however, suggests that Erkenwald has not in fact been granted knowledge; there is a miracle here, but it is not one of knowing. The miracle is like this one, from the Acts of the Apostles, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.” For the Spiritus Domini is a a Pentecost mass, or a Votive mass,13 associated with the visitation of the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous traversal of linguistic difference. “Þurghe sum lant goste lyfe” [through some lent ghost life] (192),14 the corpse can speak, and through the ghostly investment of Pentecost, Erkenwald can speak with the dead: speak with, become open to, know himself in the presence of, but only in the sense of knowing himself to have been “summoned…into a more concrete, ecstatic relation to what lies not just beyond but within these boundaries” (Howie 4). This is a figure for our responsible encounter with poetry, we might say, especially as Erkenwald, having intended to know all by absorbing more and more about the judge’s life and history, is instead stricken with more intense wonder, and finally is brought to where he “hade no space to speke so spakly he ȝoskyd [had no space to speak so violently he sobbed]” (312).

As for the crowd, they have already joined with the tomb itself. When the judge begins speaking, “Þer sprange in þe pepulle / In al þis worlde no worde, ne wakenyd no noice / Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde / Wyt meche wonder forwrast, and wepid ful mony”15 [there sprang in the people in all this world no word, nor wakened no noise, but they stood as still as stone and listened, seized with much wonder, and very many of them wept] (217-20). D. Vance Smith remarks that “this apparently miraculous scene extends—and even displaces—the crypt outwards to the site of the living, who gaze back at the judge’s corpse with a marmoreal quiescence. The work of metaphor transforms the living into memorial stone.” Yes, I say, to the crowd enclosing the tomb with their own bodies, yes, as well, to the tomb itself joining with the crowd, yes I say to what’s implicit here, namely, that it is as if the crowd lends its speech and motion to the corpse, who in turn lends his immense stillness to them; but, pace Smith, this is not a metaphoric substitution. This is metonymy, as Howie writes, “contamination by contiguity” (19), “catching, in both senses: grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness,” a stony and alien pagan tomb at the heart of frenetic Christian London and a speaking, singular, and honored corpse amid a motley assemblage of Londoners. To repeat, this is metonymy, “grasping even the most rigorously exposed unlikeness and making of it, of that momentary contact with it, a new creature: a monster or a miracle” (107). Not substitution, not assimilation, but transformative contact. The tomb has emerged into their midst, emerged, not unconcealed.16 From Howie again: “In order for other people and things to ’emerge’ we must in a sense ‘merge with them: not in an appropriative fashion, nor in the sense of a reductio ad unum” (33).17As Howie urges, drawing on the language of Kaja Silverman, we must participate. The crowd has not only seen the tomb, marked its edges, wondered at its being while considering how it holds its mystery to itself. They are, in the heart of St. Paul’s, within the tomb, stone themselves in the moment and space of this contact, where the tomb itself comes to speak and move; they are, I must emphasize, with-in the tomb, at once with it and in it, around it and a part of it, enclosing it and being enclosed by it.

If I could, I would freeze the poem here, stop reading, arrest its and my progress amid the crowd and the tomb; this would be a sacred without a telos, an apocalypse without an eschaton. But the poem moves on; the judge is baptized; and “sodenly his swete chere swyndid and faylide / And all the blee of his body wos blakke as þe moldes / as rotten as þe rottok þat rises in powdere” [and suddenly his sweet face wasted away and failed, and all the color of his body was black as grave-dirt, as rotten as decayed matter that rises in powder] (342-44). London, faced with a gap in the foundation of its civic consciousness, assimilates the threat; but the horror of the judge’s transformation suggests that London, having satisfied its desire, has arrived inevitably at the nauseating Real. Is this what their desire wants? Perhaps, if it is a grasping desire, an explaining desire, driven by lack. But Howie gives us another model: “Between mine and not mine, what intervenes is close to mine, neither appropriable nor wholly other: within reach, without ever being fully grasped” (15). With this, we might ask what the crowd lost by gaining its desire’s object, when it ceased to remain with it, where it might have let itself be and be had in its desire. With the judge gone, the crowd goes out, and “meche mournynge and myrthe was mellyd to-geder” [much mourning and mirth mingled together] (350): in closing, we might ask what they are mourning, when, happy to believe that they know what has happened, thinking that the past is finally shut up, they leave nothing behind in St. Paul’s except an empty tomb.

Works Cited

Bugbee, John. 2008. Sight and Sound in St. Erkenwald: On Theodicy and the Senses. Medium Aevum 77, no. 2: 202-21.
Chaganti, Seeta. 2008. The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chism, Christine. 2002. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’. Cardozo Law Review 11: 921-1045.
———. 1995. ‘Eating Well,’ or The Calculation of the Subject. In Points: Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell, 255-87. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Grady, Frank. 1992. Piers Plowman, St. Erkenwald, and the Rule of Exceptional Salvations. The Yearbook of Langland Studies 6, no. 1: 63-88.
———. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Merciless Parliament. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22: 179-211.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. 2009. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Howie, Cary. 2007. Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Nissé, Ruth. 1998. ‘ A Coroun Ful Riche’: The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald. ELH 65, no. 2: 277-295.
Otter, Monika. 1994. ‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and The Medieval Sense of the Past. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24, no. 3: 387-414.
Scattergood, John. 2000. St. Erkenwald and the Custody of the Past. In The Lost Tradition: Essays on Middle English Alliterative Poetry, 179-99. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Schwyzer, Philip. 2006. Exhumation and Ethnic Conflict: From St. Erkenwald to Spenser in Ireland. Representations 95, no. 1: 1-26.
Sisk, Jennifer. 2007. The Uneasy Orthodoxy of St. Erkenwald. ELH 74, no. 1: 89-115.
Smith, D. Vance. 2002. Crypt and Decryption: Erkenwald Terminable and Interminable’. New Medieval Literatures 5: 59-85.
Turville-Petre, Thorlac. 2005. St. Erkenwald and the Crafty Chronicles. In Studies in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Texts in honour of John Scattergood: ‘The Key of all Good Remembrance’, ed. Anne D’Arcy and Alan J. Fletcher, 362-74. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Whatley, Gordon. 1985. The Middle English St. Erkenwald and Its Liturgical Context. Mediaevalia 8: 277-306.
———. 1986. Heathens and Saints: St. Erkenwald in Its Legendary Context. Speculum 61, no. 2: 330-363.

1 MED s.v. “rūnish,” (a) “mysterious, strange.” Turville-Petre 2005 at 373 ingeniously suggests that the tomb might correspond either to the St Paul’s Rune Stone, discovered in the 19th century, or some earlier find of the same sort (for image, see here); at 371, he also observes that the MED correctly suggests “that the meanings of renish and runish have here become confused, for in these quotations the sense is that derived from the common Middle English noun roun (from Old English run), which has a semantic range that includes ‘voice, utterance, secret’ as well as ‘written character.”

2 The better examples of such readings include Bugbee 2008; Chism 2002; Grady 1992; Grady 2000; Nissé 1998; Sisk 2007; and Whatley 1986. Otter 1994 and Smith 2002 are rare exceptions to “closed” readings of Erkenwald. For example, at 408, Otter writes that “The searching and digging, the guessing, deciphering, and questioning, begin to stand all by themselves, and even for themselves: the poem, itself part of the questioning and deciphering of the past, at one level mirrors itself.”

3 Derrida 1995, 286, “responsibility is excessive or it is not a responsibility. A limited, measured, calculable, rationally distributed responsibility is already the becoming-right of morality; it is at times also, in the best hypothesis, the dream of every good conscience, in the worst hypothesis, of the petty or grand inquisitors”; also Derrida 1990, 252, “A decision that would not go through the test and ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision; it would only be the programmable application or the continuous unfolding of a calculable process. It might perhaps be legal; it would not be just.”

4 “Intensify” and “intensification” appear frequently in Claustrophilia; for example, at 18, “This ethics of intensification has distinct ontological consequences: intervention within the compromised appearance of enclosed bodies and texts amounts to participating in these appearances’ being-apparent. Interpretation, or aesthetic reception, is thus not entirely discrete from aesthetic production: it reaches across the aporia between seer and seen, to make something more visible, contingently, approximately, and thereby also offers itself to sight. This movement also makes something more hidden, deepening the artwork’s depths even as it intensifies the surface. Claustrophilia thus, beyond readerly “response” and deconstructive supplementarity, makes singularity more apparent through participative intensification.”

5 Among others, see especially of Harris 2009, 2, which critiques the “national sovereignty model of temporality”, where “each moment [has] a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state’s: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution”; Harris writes against the notion of a moment “as a self-identical unit divided from other moments that come before and after it” (5) to disrupt the old binary of synchronic versus diachronic study (10).

6 At 174, Harris 2009 quotes Michel Serres’ Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (with Bruno Latour), “Classical time in related to geometry, having nothing to do with space, as Bergson pointed out all too briefly, but with metrics. On the contrary, take your inspiration from topology, and perhaps you will discover the rigidity of those proximities and distances you find arbitrary. And the simplicity, in the literal sense of the word pli: it’s simply the difference between topology (the handkerchief is folded, crumpled, shredded) and geometry (the same fabric is ironed out flat).”

7 This is not an uncommon observation about the poem: Schwyzer 2006, for example, writes “Wreaking havoc with the temporal equivalent of depth perception, the queasy fascination of the preserved body consists not only in making what is far away seem near, but also in robbing the near of its wonted security and familiarity. Thus, the Londoners in the poem experience not simply the simultaneous failure of living and historical memory but also a collapse of the distinction between these two modes of memory” (7).

8 “Hit is to meche to any mon to make of a nombre. / After þat Brutus þis burgh had buggid on fyrste, Noȝt bot fife hundred ȝere þer aghtene wontyd / Before þat kynned ȝour Criste by Cristen acounte: / A þousand ȝere and þritty mo and 3 thren aght” (205-210). Scattergood 2000, 196, provides a model from 1269 shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster abbey, made by Peter of Rome, ‘ANNO MILENO DOMINI CVM SEPTVAGENO ET BIS CENTENO CVM COMPLETO QVASI DENO HOC OPVS EST FACTUM QUOD PETRVS.”

9 Other commentators have also noticed the effect of alliteration, but have read it as either an anxious inability to suppress the past or as metaphoric substitution. Chaganti 2008, 67, is a rare exception: “Particularly in this visual and material sense, alliteration reinforces a pattern of vestigiality: letters are repeated in pagan and Christian names, so that the past not only prefigures the present, but it also leaves behind pieces—letters, like statues and buildings—which are adapted in the present and incorporated into newly cleansed Christian structures and words. The poem uses the narrative capacities of material objects and the material capacities of letters and language to demonstrate the trope of vestigiality, the reliquiae, that which is left behind. The inscriptional aspect of alliteration thus provides a defining temporality for the poem; the recursive return to what has been left behind,” so suggesting “ceremonial temporality.”

10 To a different end, Chaganti 2008, 69, also finds the poem interested in enclosure, “At the level of the poem’s explicit narrative…exist many self-enfolding layers of enclosure, establishing the role of enshrinement in the text’s imagery.”

11 I echo Otter 1994, 410, where the tomb “unexpectedly surfaces—literally—and is simply there, a fait accompli, ‘fourmit on a flore,’ as the poem solidly puts it.”

12 See also Chaganti 2008, 56, where the runes “both embellish and obscure the meaning of an enshrined object. And in this capacity, their illegibility symbolizes the mystified nature of the late-medieval shrine in English churches and cathedrals. The runes speak through their very impenetrability, their resistance to being read as language, about the nature of ceremonial encounters with shrines as decorated objects, a mystery at once challenging and suggestive.”

13 Whatley 1985, especially 295 n10.

14 Note that I follow the manuscript reading here rather than Peterson’s tendentious emendation to “Þurghe sum Ghoste lant lyfe.” See Whatley 1982, 294 n9.

15 Smith 2002, 66. Vance’s reading is, in essence, an epistemological one, concerned with our inability to know, whereas mine concerned with our ability to be touched: in sum, the very fact of being moved by the tomb is itself a presence. Other critics have remarked on the stone image: Nissé 1998, 289, “In this way, the memory of the Trojan past is reinscribed in a collective historical consciousness: ‘Bot al as stille as þe ston stoden and listonde’”; Chaganti 2008, 53, “The poem defines the judge not only as a bounded material object, but also as an occasion of performance and performative self-constitution. In the above simile, ‘as stile as the ston,’ the transfer of the stone’s materiality from the judge’s tomb (and static body) to the people looking at it makes them interactive participants in a scene of performance blending spectacle, ceremony, and architecture….the language of the poem renders indeterminate the boundary between the stone tomb and the astonished audience, so that both fill the positions of either a material thing or an occasion of spectacle.”

16 Howie 2007, 33, which explains his preference for emergence over unconcealment: “I prefer the latter term inasmuch as it consolidates both moments better than ‘unconcealment’ can. To be sure, ‘unconcealment’ presents itself as the constitutive negation of the hidden, but ’emergence’ speaks forth an even greater, and more spatial, paradox: literally e-mergere, emergence plunges, immerses, engulfs not into but out of: it is enclosure figured as disclosive opening, approximation as distance.”

17 See also Sara Ahmed Queer Phenomenology, “What touches is touched, and yet ‘the toucher’ and ‘the touched’ do not ever reach each other; they do not merge to become one,” quoted in Harris 2009, 149.

Weeping with Erkenwald, or, Complicit with Grace

During Steven Kruger’s plenary at SEMA, I got to thinking about the dynamic of supersessionarity in St. Erkenwald. I’m sure K. Biddick has handled this somewhere, or probably any number of Erkenwald‘s many critics, so apologies in advance, and also apologies for not having a copy in the house of the poem in Middle English.

If you don’t remember Erkenwald offhand, here’s the plot, cribbed from the very first paper I wrote at Columbia, back in 1999:

A group of masons discover a tomb while renovating St. Paul’s. In the tomb is an incorrupt body dressed as a king. Efforts to determine the identity of this supposed king prove unsuccessful, so the Bishop of London, Erkenwald, is summoned back from a visitation. After mass and prayer, the corpse speaks, revealing itself as the most righteous of judges under the pre-Roman kings “Sir Belyn [and] Ser Berynge . . . his brothire” (l. 213). Despite his righteousness, the soul of the nameless judge is still in Hell. Erkenwald prays for the soul, weeps in compassion, and the formula of baptism and a single tear baptizes the judge. The judge’s soul ascends to heaven, his body disappears into dust, and Erkenwald and the community of London are united in praise of the inscrutable mercy of God.

The poem begins “Not long after / Christ suffered on the cross and sanctified Christendom, / The city had a saintly and sanctified bishop; / And it happened that Erkenwald was the holy man’s name.” It then turns to Augustine’s conversion of the Insular pagans, when in London

” at that time the temple most eminent
Was partly pulled down and purified by dedication,
Having been heathen in the days of Hengist”

Apollo’s temple becomes St. Peter’s church, Mahomet’s St. Margaret’s, Jupiter and Juno become Jesus or James, and the “Þe synagoge of þe Sonne was sett to oure Lady.” The note to my sad Penguin edition explains “‘Synagogue’ in Middle English was used to describe any heathen temple. Probably the identifications in this stanza were determined by alliterative needs.” (17 n5), a point supported, just barely, by the MED.

But in that synagogue, converted to a church of “oure Lady,” I can’t help think of St. Mary’s in Jewry, which Robert Stacey (“The Conversion of Jews in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 67 (1992), 265) tells me was a converted synagogue (anyone have pictures? Know if it’s still around? Know what happened to it?).

And, driven by that thought, I wonder at the very opening of the poem: I know Middle English poetry is not notable for its historical precision, but the historical Erkenwald was bishop some 700 years after the purported death of Christ. But if he’s set “not long after” the death of Christ, Erkenwald very closely follows the cruxifixion and resurrection and thus the supersession of Judaism by Christianity. Why not understand London’s converted heathen architecture as the converted Jewish architecture of post-Expulsion England (something to think through for your stone project, Jeffrey?)? Why not take “synagoge” literally instead of as a cheap metrical filler (after all, another word might have done the trick just as well, or as poorly). Why not imagine that the builders discover in the foundation the foundation of their faith, the Jewish bedrock that literally held up several London structures? Why not hear in the noise of the bells that end the poem a triumphant counter to the enforced silence of London Jewry in the 13th century, who were first told they had to worship quietly before being expelled altogether a few decades later? Why not hear in the “New Werke” the New Work of Grace? I realize the poem probably dates to the 1390s, which is rather late for all this, but, otherwise, why not?

All this is by way of setting up the question I asked Kruger after his talk: “Why a judge?” The story’s normally about Trajan, an emperor, so why make the change? Why a judge rather than a king? I remember suggesting (which is not to say I actually suggested anything of the sort at that moment!), clearly this is a supersessionary narrative about the passing away of the Law, represented by the good judge, in the time of grace, represented by Erkenwald’s weeping affect. The potency of his tears utterly dissolves the Law, pagan, or Jewish (which, barring the Natural Law that predated the Mosaic Law, is virtually coterminous with “the Law”), or even the Christian Law that left the righteous judge languishing in Hell (note, I prefer to aim at a reading of utter dissolution of any Law to what I recall as the standard approach to the crux of the judge’s salvation, viz., to snap the miracle back into some clear doctrine and so to give it back to a law while taking away the truly miraculous).

This reading of the poem as a supersessionary allegory leads me to my final question: our philosophical interests at ITM tend towards affect and affirmation; we tend towards refusing the “said” or “being” in favor of the “saying” or “becoming”; we tend to find the rigorous application of any one critical model, particularly models of the Law (stereotypically psychoanalysis), interesting at best, but often enervating. We find ourselves on the side of the miraculous, l’avenir, on the side of surprise. And if not “we,” then certainly “I.” If I had to place myself anywhere in St. Erkenwald, I would find myself in Erkenwald himself, surprised by the efficacy of my own tears, unsure what to do other than praise the moment and what it wrought. I would linger in the liquefaction of the Judge, of the bodily contact between the Bishop and the Corpse in this in-between zone of fluids. But given how I have read the poem, to what degree am I conditioned by or complicit in ongoing supersessionary narratives? In whose camp do I fall when I refuse the Law?


Not sure yet about the Bravo for standing with St. E. I’m deciding, at least for today, to be suspicious about the aligning of affect with grace, and the foundations of the preference for affect over the Law.

I suppose this move, now that I think of it, is inspired by Kruger’s stirring final paragraphs in his SEMA plenary, his suspicions, if I recall them correctly, about our love for change, instability, slippage, and the link. Again, iirc, Kruger observed that destabilization as one means by which dominant structures establish themselves as dominant, so asking that we rethink destabilization with apostate 13th-c. Jews in mind (this is akin to a point I make in my [ick] Exemplaria article, “Category disruption is often presented as liberative, but it also provides opportunities for dominant groups to reassure themselves of their own power” or even Holsinger’s “it’s worth pointing out the extent to which neomedievalism’s idiom of porous borders, overlapping authorities, conflicting jurisdiction, and so on can often be hard to distinguish from the postmodern-postcolonial patois those of us in literary studies have been speaking to one another over the last twenty years” (Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror 82-83)).

further comments

Jeffrey asks

What’s wrong with temporary and strategic and affective arrests like this one?

If Erkenwald the poem were engaged only in a temporary, strategic, and affective arrest with the dead judge, then that would be fine. However, the dissolution of the Law occurs in a ritual that cements civic with religious power (as the historically oriented criticism as Nic remembers it establishes: e.g., if I remember it correctly, Ruth Nissé, “A Coroun Ful Riche: the Rule of History in St. Erkenwald.” English Literary History 65 (1998), 277-95.) In joining ourselves affectively with Erkenwald, or with the community, we join together to help the (as I argue, at least implicitly Jewish) Judge supersede the Law. It’s great to destabilize the Law, because what’s the other option? But our preferred reading practices have much in common with Christian anti-Judaism, except–and this is perhaps (paradoxically, natch) our salvation–that our affiliations ARE “temporary and strategic and affective.” In not being oriented towards some final salvation, in not being oriented towards some community that arrives for good through our dissolution of the law, our love remains a worldly love. It does not one circle around the Savior, but is in the here and now, which is not to say, however, that it is a love without spirit (or, to put this another way, inspired by Eileen’s post, it is not a “faceless” love). And now I wonder, both, if I found too simple an out for my conundrum, and whether I should read more Bernard of Clairvaux….

Now, with Rick’s points in mind, we can recall that the civic and religious community formed through supersession occurred in the past. Given the political strife of London in the 1380s and 90s, this community demonstrably did not “take.” Erkenwald, then, may be understood as a nostalgia for a moment when London “worked”; it may be understood as an attempt to recuperate the present and to restart the future by resuscitating history’s deadends (here I’m thinking of course of Benjamin’s Angel of History, surely the guardian angel of our philosophical klatch for the last few years).

To its credit, however, Erkenwald ALSO enacts the abjection through which community forms: as Erkwanwald demonstrates, the coming community will never come without tears [and here, again, I want to stress the Judge as Jewish and not only as a generalized figure of the frustrations of the Law]. We can understand the Judge as the Indivisible Remainder, as the Stain of the Real, as the Not-All, &c. &c. &c. [note that my &c may indicate that I’m cavalierly collapsing concepts that should remain distinct]. The Judge is that which can be brought into the community only by being assimilated and dissolved and thus by ceasing to be in a “destructive ecstacy” that occurs at his expense. After all, Erkenwald is still with us at the end; the Judge has passed on or just joined with Erkenwald is being part of the Civic Spirit. Thus, even in gesturing towards the recreation of or a path towards the Utopia of a pacific London, Erkenwald asserts the impossibility of anything truly pacific. Erkenwald points to the Utopia and declares it impossible. A truly peaceful community, a community formed without abjection, a community in which dissolution in non-violent, is paradigmatically the Utopia, the “nowhere” that Erkenwald refuses to locate in the past or present and thus that Erkenwald refuses to offer to the future.

If this is what Erkenwald is doing, I should say that I’m not (necessarily) in agreement with it. I’m inclined toward hope these days, but–with Eileen–trying to do this ethically.

Another approach, again suggested by Rick’s comment, in combination with Nic, has to do with liturgical time. Erkenwald dramatizes an encounter with a nearly forgotten past. If encountered only as artifacts–the tomb, the corpse–the past cannot be encountered except in its stolid refusal to offer itself to understanding [again, some connections with Jeffrey’s stone project?]. Affect and desire enact the contact that gives us up to the past and the past up to us. That’s one reading.

We also might also see in Erkenwald a mourning of being unable to bring the past into our own time. Affect brings it in, but it then destroys the past, empties the foundations out of mystery, of their “own-ness,” and fills them with the sound of bells in the present day. Time is like a glacier dragging underneath it chunks of the unseen but still present past. But time understood liturgically melts the glacier, clears out the boulders, offers us a time that circles around, offering us the past and present and future denuded of mystery. Understood this way, Erkenwald DESTROYS the past AS past by flooding the foundations of Westminster with another kind of time.

But we still might think–here with Nic on bells “includ[ing] the bodies of its hearers as much as the trees, rocks and streams,” and with Erin Manning on the reaching-towards of communities–of the ceremony, of the bells touching, calling into being a new mode of individuation and time? Much to think about here… – See more at:

With all that in mind, again, I wonder, to what extent is our refusal of what JJC calls “the tyranny of a determinative ending” traveling with an old, anti-Jewish heilgeschichte? The answer might be “not at all,” but it still might be worth thinking through.

[Recalling Kruger’s final paragraphs as best I can–I think my laptop ran out of power, so I couldn’t take notes at that point–I also want to wonder whether we should distinguish more clearly between conversion, change, and teleological transition. Certainly the proper path of the heterosexual middle class American male is to ‘convert’ from a single oats sower to a family man, from a ‘seeker of self’ to a company man, from an apartment renter to a homeowner, and so on to death, but these changes are no more destabilizing than, if you will forgive the cliché, the conversion of a caterpillar into a moth. But this is another conversation]

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).

The Past in the Past: Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval

In her post below, Mary Kate writes:

On the final page of the book, CD defines “getting medieval” as this: “using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future” (206). This conception seems to get us into the thick of a problem of temporality – how does the unidirectional “arrow of time” stop being so unidirectional upon closer inspection? How, to borrow from CD in her reflection on the book, “Got Medieval” (published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, No. 10), do we identify and examine the “copresence of different chronologies to explore the power of multiple temporalities in a single moment?”

This leads me into my next, brief question. In GM, the medieval past touches the present in various ways. However, as much as CD corrects the homogeneous premodern of Bhabha, Baudrillard, and others, as much as she demands that the so-called modern allow itself to be or realize that it is touched by an abjected, mobile past, her own medieval strikes me as homogeneous as well to the extent that it is not itself touched by its present pasts.

CD writes well about the Lollard assault on the ‘crimen Sodomorum’ of institutional religion, on its wealth, on its alimentary excess. I don’t believe, of course, that CD presents this material as if it sprang ex nihilo (or ex Wycliffo); after all, she cites and uses Penn R Szittya’s important The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature. At the same time, I don’t think there’s enough mobilization in GM of one of the most peculiar aspects of medieval textuality, namely, its habitual, even constitutive reuse of centuries-old writings, and of the mnemotechnics in which production was always a rearrangement of pasts. Antifraternal critique reuses moral approaches from the twelfth-century Parisian critique of bad living clerics, which itself redeployed work by Gregory the Great; no doubt we could keep pushing this further back, or expanding the lines outward to form something more rhizomatic than genealogical. I also imagine–although I haven’t done the legwork–that Lollard ecclesiastical critique, especially its antimendicant critique, derives at least in part from the work of the Spiritual Franciscans, and thus we would have seen critiques internal to the Friars turned against the Friars as a whole, and from there, turned against the whole of the Church.

GM is already a big book, and it’s certainly a great book. It seems ungracious to complain that it should have been bigger, more capacious, that CD should have loosened the 40-year boundary she set for her medieval analysis. We would have needed another 100 pages. I should, then, present this not as a critique but as a call to be inspired by GM to keep on pushing. Readers of ITM know that this work is already being done, especially with JJC and MKH’s attention to the polychronicity of ruins and stones, of the distant past of ruins and the very distant, unfathomable past of fossils inhabiting and confounding various medieval presents, whether they’re 8th or 10th or 12th century. Although this question might remind us too much of the postmodern inability to break with the past, we might also wonder in whose voices the Lollards speak when they think themselves using their own voices?