[your presentations should be about 7 minutes long. This one is perhaps a little short of that. That’s fine. For presentations, it’s always better to be a little short than a little long! You should focus on a sentence or two in the text you’re discussing, and simply aim to make it more interesting, or to help us understand it better. You should end with a question to help us understand the text even further. What follows is a quotation from one of William Harrison’s sections in Raphael Holinshed’s sixteenth-century Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland]
These two are also noted in vs (as things apperteining to the firme constitutions of our bodies) that there hath not béene séene in anie region so manie carcasses of the dead to remaine from time to time without corrupti|on as in Britaine: and that after death by slaughter or otherwise, such as remaine vnburied by foure or fiue daies togither, are easie to be knowne and discerned by their fréends and kindred; whereas Tacitus and other complaine of sundrie nations, saieng, that their bodies are Tam fluidae substantiae, that within certeine houres the wife shall hardlie know hir husband, the mother hir sonne, or one fréend another after their liues be ended.
As Harrison winds down his argument for the superiority of English bodies to the bodies of other Europeans, he includes a claim that the corpses of the English dead in battle do not rot as quickly as the bodies of other battlefield dead. They can, he asserts, remain unburied for four or five days, and still be easily recognized by friends and families, while the bodies of others are “tam fluidae substantiae,’ basically, like liquid, and therefore rot so quickly that even the nearest intimates of the dead — their wife, mother, or friends — can barely recognize them, so quickly does the putrefaction take over.
That’s a strange claim, and one, presumably, quite easy to disprove. But simply saying that Harrison is wrong tells us nothing about why he might have made such a claim, or why it should have made its way into print in such an authoritative work. It’s not as if Harrison is a nobody: in helping contribute to Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, he contributed to a work relied upon by many of the most famous writers of his era, Shakespeare included.
Obviously, Harrison’s goal, here and therefore, is to distinguish the English corporeally from other Europeans, as proof of an innate English superiority. By locating, first, that difference in inheritable bodily characteristics, and by arguing, second, for a hierarchy of bodily differences, Harrison’s claims are at least suggestive of a “racial” argument. That the racial differences he’s trying to make might strike us as obviously spurious, and that the differences he’s trying to make don’t align with more familiar “racial” divisions of our era is itself evidence of the purely cultural character of race. It’s not that his classifications are unscientific, unlike those of our era. It’s that here’s evidence that the identification of “racial” divisions are always dubiously originated by attempts to find a “natural” claim for political and other cultural differences.
But why does he focus on bodies? He might have focused on hair color, fashion, music, or food, other common ways of manufacturing racial difference. I saw a film recently, Soleil Ô, about the difficulties Black men from the former French African colonies had in Paris. A white man comes on screen to say, well, the Africans eat millet, and we eat potatoes, and that’s why we can’t mix. The Black star of the film, Robert Liensol, pops in and says, well: we eat potatoes too, as anyone knows who’s ever had Senegalese food. And the white Frenchman just stands there and looks embarrassed and confused, as he should be.
That is, cuisine can change, and so can music and food. Bodies seem to be more consistent. But the problem with bodies is that even they change. They grow, they shrink, they age, they die (skin color is more consistent, so it’s no wonder that racialization eventually settled on skin color as its foundation). So to ensure that bodies do the “racial” work that his argument requires, Harrison has to find a way to insist on the bodily integrity of the English. Our superiority is evident in our bodies, he seems to be arguing, and you can see that even after we’re dead, because our consistency of character extends even down to our corpses. The French and Spaniards and people further South are too clever; they overthink things; they break their promises; and that inconsistency of character is evident in the very inconsistency of their bodies. We, on the other hand, don’t rot quickly, because we keep our promises.
In making this argument, Harrison — despite being an anti-Catholic, like many English of his time — is perhaps drawing on a tradition from Roman Catholic hagiography (biographies of saints and their miracles, a word that literally means “holy writing”) in which the bodies of the holy dead don’t rot. In these stories, exhumed saints are evidently saints because their corpses, even after years in the grave, look like a sleeping person rather than a mass of corruption.
These legends of holiness may be something Harrison is drawing on in making his claim. And he may expect that his audience’s familiarity with these stories would lend credence to his claims, as ridiculous as they might strike us. I’d love for us to talk about that more. I’m wondering if we can wonder what else Harrison might be up to in his claims about bodies, and what these claims might have to do, for example, with masculinity. After all, his description of the bodies of the English focuses almost exclusively on men, and his section about the unrotten dead of the English talks only about the bodies of dead men. Why is that?