Blood, Sweat and Tears: Medieval Literature, Cambridge, and Leonard Cohen

 

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London, British Library, Egerton MS 1821, ff. 1v-2r

I was thinking, this morning, how there is never enough time for some things. 82 years, for instance, feels like far too little time – even though I had been expecting to read that Leonard Cohen had died every time I saw his name in the depressing little facebook ‘sidebar of 2016 shitshows’ that has evolved over the course of this year.

The image above – the opening pages of a medieval prayerbook made in the fifteenth century – came up in my teaching today. We were reading Julian of Norwich and talking, amongst other things, about the grotesque, weirdly solid droplets of blood she visualises – like the scales of a fish – dropping down Christ’s face as he dies on the cross. Medieval literature is very keen on blood, sweat and tears, as the image demonstrates. They flow, drip, trickle, spurt, smear and gush from text to text and (revoltingly, but historically and scientifically verifiably) across the pages of stained, damp-puckered, grimy manuscripts that have plainly caught the worst of human effluvia over the centuries. Such tears can seem both overwhelming, and off-putting. Margery Kempe weeps so often and so loudly that (she proudly records) onlookers frequently presume her to be drunk in church. Piers Plowman‘s Will wails so prolifically that he exhausts himself into deep sleep. Chaucer’s Troilus experiences what should be temporary sexual frustration as a fully realised episode cardiac and sanguinary gushing.

But blood, sweat and tears are also, depressingly, part of the experience of studying medieval literature at university. Echoing both medieval imagery of tears and the medieval love of sensory contact with books with impressive authenticity, a student describes how

‘[Y]ou open the book you’ve probably borrowed from the library. You are hit by the smell of the tears of thousands of other[s] … who have had to endure the same pain.

This idea of being caught in a tradition of academic suffering is not unique to Cambridge. When I started my Masters at Oxford (which is, admittedly, not a million miles from Cambridge in ethos), I read a helpful guide to the process, written by an academic. It mentioned – with no apparent hint of irony or humour – that a likely consequence of nine months of intensive study of English Literature was (I kid you not) ‘the dark night of the soul’. Both pieces of writing reminded me of an article by Mary Carruthers, which begins with the bizarre religious writings of the medieval theologian Peter of Celle. Peter wrote a book called On Affliction and Reading, which sounds suitably negative. By ‘affliction,’ Carruthers explains, Peter means:

examination of conscience … oral confession, flooding tears, mortification, kneeling in continuous silence, psalmody, and lashing.

Peter goes on to describe what the ‘reading’ part of his topic requires: not only mind-numbing repetition, carried out in the lonely narrowness of the monastic cell, but also something akin to physical torture. It is reading that lacerates the flesh, strips skin and muscles from the underlying bone, and tears at the body until the blood flows. It is like being in:

a market, where the butcher sells small amounts of his flesh to to God, who comes as a customer. The more of his flesh he sells, the greater grows the sum of money he sets aside. Let them, therefore, increase their spiritual wealth and fill their purse by selling their own flesh and blood, for flesh and blood will not possess the kingdom of Christ. 

As Carruthers comments, what is even more distasteful is the rhetoric of commodification, for the process is a lucrative transaction with God. However – having established this unsettling tradition in medieval theology – she acknowledges that medieval writers seemed to believe it was, at least, a kind of suffering that was necessary to gain benefits. She concludes, ultimately, that Troilus’ incessant weeping in Chaucer’s poem – weeping that’s often seen as absurd, comic, or pain annoying – is actually part of this tradition:

in Troilus, as in a great deal of medieval art, there is a deep connection between the grief and the argument, indeed, in some way the grief sets the arguing in motion … in this psychology, arguing needs an emotion like grief in order to come fully into being, to be invented and fruitfully intended in the first place, or else it remains dry and without fruit. 

Plainly, Peter of Celle – and all the other medieval writers who seem to glory in the experience of thoroughly miserable, painful, and excessive reading – must have believed they actually did stand to gain something from the experience, whether we believe that gain was actual enlightenment or, more cynically, the status achieved through a virtuoso performance of suffering. But should reading hurt?

In my favourite of Leonard Cohen’s songs, he teaches his listener to:

… leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

I love this image of tears as a structure, a process that solidifies into a scaffolding that gives you the support to be silent. I love the epithets he uses to describe body and soul, including the gorgeous phrase ‘tangle of matter and ghost’: words that echo back to the King James Bible and to medieval English. And finally, I love the lines with which Cohen ends the song, with a litany of images of renunciation and farewell that end:

Bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.

I have listened to these lines, and this song, a lot of times. I’ve puzzled over that image of the word ‘stuttering’ as it turns into flesh – which is an image I love, but also a profoundly weird image of creation, and an image of creation that is startlingly accepting of brokenness and what we might see as impairment. I’ve listened to it all so many times, while I was speed-reading a particularly boring, un-poetic translation of the Roman de la Rose, that the image of the rose on its ‘ladder of thorns’ has seeped, irrecoverably, into my mental map of that text. I’ve never actually looked up what the song means (or is ‘supposed’ to mean). I could have looked it up for this post – but I really didn’t, and don’t, want to. And I didn’t enjoy putting into words even the tiny little bit of a response that I’ve managed in this post. I can’t help seeing me writing (clumsily) about Leonard Cohen as something a bit like that process of tearing off one’s flesh strip by strip in order to make money: a transaction that’s excruciating and simultaneously extremely crass. I’d like to write really beautiful, crafted, self-effacing sentences that somehow let Cohen’s poetry speak for itself, unimpeded, while also saying something. I don’t have the time.

What I do have, is the mental equivalent of muscle memory. I had the experience of writing two essays a week, eight weeks a term, for three years. A lot of those essays were awful. Some of them never got handed in. Some of them weren’t complete. But they pushed me to write a lot of words, and to think about a lot of words. They pushed me to read a lot. So, I know that – if I want to, or if I ever need to – I can sit down and write 1200 words to compare the images of blood and tears, flesh torn and flesh stuttering into Resurrection, across texts written eight centuries apart. I can learn to understand those texts I love better – even if I never really think about them in an academic way – because there’s an ingrained habit of writing out, testing out, building up, new responses to every text I ‘have’ to read, however little time there might seem to be.

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RIP

The Window

Why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse
Lost in the waves of a sickness
That loosens the high silver nerves
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
And kiss the cheek of the moon
The New Jerusalem glowing
Why tarry all night in the ruin
And leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Gentle this soul

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is that a Partridge in Your Pear Tree, or are you Just Pleased to See Me? Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale

This is a quick heads up for a post I wrote for the fantastic Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, over at the University of Surrey. You can read the full story there! It’s on Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.

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A Horcrux Theory of Chaucerian Manuscript Transmission

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Adam Scriveyn

To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:

‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’

The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.

For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.

But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus –  gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.

Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.

Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.

Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.

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This is not a Horcrux – though it is a split manuscript body – but rather, how I picture Dumbledore’s face, when Rowling outed him.

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A small and pleasing discovery (possibly?) about Sir Gawain

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The mathematics of medieval architecture: Peterborough Cathedral

I’ve somehow never written this post about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem that is many people’s first encounter with the gorgeous poetic language and spellbinding storytelling of medieval England – though I’ve been wondering about a minor detail I’ve noticed in the poem, for a while. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century, somewhere in the West Midlands to judge by the dialect, and it survives in a single manuscript along with three other works by the same writer: two religious poems and a long, very beautiful and very evocative dream-vision about mourning and loss. All of these poems – but especially Gawain and Pearl – show a fascination with symmetry and number-patterns, and there are any number of complicated interlocking sequences of pairs and triplets and fivefold symmetries, as well as concentric circular structures of narrative and verse form.

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I’ve noticed when teaching Gawain that this is an aspect of the poem that invites a remarkable degree of visual concentration – and a kind of visual, mathematical concentration that always seems remarkably medieval (think about the complicated numerical structures of a cathedral, or even of a fan-vault roof). Foremost amongst the visual symbols of that poem is the pentangle – the five-pointed symbol Gawain wears on his shield as he rides out from Camelot, and which symbolises his linked, fivefold virtues bound together forever into a locked, endless knot.

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Gawain’s shield device is – patently – not a heraldic display of identity, like the medieval shields we more commonly see on old buildings and in church windows, where quartered symbols might show parentage, ties of marriage, position in the family birth order, and more. Rather, it is his personal device, and a somewhat inscrutable design. Almost as important, as the narrative wears on, is another object: a lady’s girdle, which promises Gawain sure protection against his deadly enemy, but which also (female-wise) entangles him in a complicated web of competing obligations and broken promises. This slender green circle becomes the badge of Gawain’s shame, the symbol he takes on to show his later, compromised identity as a sadder and wiser knight.

Conventional readings of this poem interpret the two objects – the shield device and the girdle – as representative of a conflict between two sides, or two orders of morality. The pentangle speaks of chivalric virtue with a hefty dose of Christian piety, for it aligns the five points of the pentangle with the wounds of Christ and the joys of the Virgin Mary. The girdle, meanwhile, smacks of feminine, perhaps even superstitious, reliance on amulets, and is indelibly associated with Gawain’s creeping fear for his own physical safety. It is easy to read the pentangle as an ideal view of chivalry – a view of chivalry that knots virtue to virtue in an unbroken, regular shape – and the girdle as its insinuating undoing. In reality, my feeling is that the pentangle, and the brand of chivalry it advertises, is nothing remotely so unambiguous or perfect. Nor, indeed, is the girdle so easily interpreted as the polar opposite of virtue: as scholars have more recently noted, its protective qualities have their real-world parallels in the religious prayer-girdles (tightly written with invocations to the Virgin) that pregnant women would use as they prepared for the terrors of childbirth.

This superficial, binary opposition of pentangle and girdle, of five-point star and circle, is, in any case, elegantly and suggestively resolved by the poet. In the final lines of Sir Gawain, he departs from the world of romance and – in the final allusion to encircling narratives arching over and around the tiny matter of Gawain’s own temptation – he evokes the wider frame of Christian history, praying:

‘Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bryng vus to his blysse!’

Now, He who bears the crown of thorns,
Let him bring us to his bliss!

The circle; the girdle. The pentangle; the points. The two images, superimposed, underlie these final lines, bound together in this last image: the crown of thorns.

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I really don’t know if this is something other people have noticed. A not-quite-cursory but not-entirely-focussed look at the scholarship doesn’t throw up any other scholars mentioning it, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But, every year, I always find students who are as delighted with its neatness as I was, and I do believe that – in a poem full of numerical and structural richness and subtlety – it is significant and meaningful.

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Trigger Warnings (Again), and a Weird Sense of Disconnection

New academic year, new spate of newspaper articles on ‘trigger warnings’. This time, it’s the Guardian‘s piece by Frank Furedi, blazing with the news Too Many Academics Are Now Censoring ThemselvesNow, with the revelation that the government is discounting the voices of non-British academics, and with the knowledge that we’re in the middle of a process that will, quite likely, make it impossible for many of us to continue meaningful research reaching outside Britain at all, you might expect that this article would express some sense of genuine concerns.

Instead, it reminded me of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness speeches you sometimes hear at conferences, where someone – cradling a half-empty glass of warmish Echo Falls – demonstrates why he (or possibly she) is in the wrong business for working with students. Furedi describes how – apparently – a colleague’s lecture on the Holocaust was interrupted by a student yelling out a self-righteous rant: “Stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised!” Strong stuff, eh? Notice how it’s always a friend or a colleague this sort of thing happens to – not the author himself. Sort of like those anecdotes that begin ‘well, my mate was actually at Woodstock when …’.

It’s perhaps unfair of me to cast doubts on the complete and utter veracity of this section of the article. Of course, some students are ruder than others about the content of lectures, but my brittle sense of self-esteem is not generally crushed beyond repair by the odd negative comment, especially when I can use my special powers of mature reflection to determine that it probably says more about the student than it does about me. On the other hand, when I get comments that suggest, hmm, maybe I didn’t introduce that particular element (the graphic rape, say, or the really anti-semitic bit) as well as I might have done, I am also capable of thinking about why that was, and how I might do it better. Not, how I might self-censor. But how I might, you know, learn something new from my students.

The problem with this article is that, for all it claims ‘too many’ academics are ‘censoring themselves’ (what would be the correct number of self-censoring academics, Prof Furedi?), it seems to be describing a remarkable lack of … censorship. Furedi describes courses that continued in their tracks, and lectures that were given, and classes that continued despite student complaints, and exam questions that made it onto the paper. So, I was left wondering, is this really a bit of a storm in a teacup?

I’ve written, and thought, about the trigger warnings controversy before. I do worry about it. I do dislike the implication that, if a student finds something upsetting, shocking, or offensive, he or she should feel entitled to have it stricken from the course. I have read the stories of universities where academics feel they can’t teach texts like Titus Andronicus, because it’s got rape in it. I have seen student petitions to ban certain speakers, and I’ve worried about the way these petitions often do seem to demonise second-wave feminism. I do think there is a worrying link between the research and teaching interests of women – and especially lesbian women – and the topics that regularly seem to require ‘trigger warnings’. There is, surely, something deeply, unfortunately ironic in the fact that we, as a society, need to be having conversations about rape, and yet, conversations about rape frequently fall into the category of ‘things too painful to talk about here’.

And yet, despite all of those concerns, I really do find Furedi’s view on trigger warnings and censorship almost impossible to take seriously. I do not find that my students regularly request more warnings. I certainly don’t find them queuing up to tell me they can’t read this text or that text because it’s violent or offensive. I regularly teach texts that depict graphic rapes. I regularly teach texts that are outrageously, phenomenally racist in their portrayals of the Middle East, of Jewish people, of people of colour. There is an entire lecture series (not by me!) in our medieval literature paper, titled simply ‘Violence’. And the thing is, these topics are extremely popular with students. Students see content warnings on my lectures – so they know that lectures on ‘romance’ (which they might expect to be about love and kittens) are actually going to be quite nasty. And they don’t seem to object to that. They come, they debate, they want to have a space to talk about these things. Last week, the first question after the first lecture was ‘can I write a feminist essay on to these texts, please?’

Students need spaces to discuss difficult subjects. Obviously, my students are a specific group, in a specific place – but I just do not recognise them in the popular portrayals of students that crop up in article’s like Furedi’s. And I don’t see myself in his portrayal of ‘us’ academics – as someone carefully picking my words and ruefully deciding to limit my searing intelligence to the narrow confines of a more boring lecture. This may be because my intelligence is just, well, rather run-of-the-mill compared to the academics he quotes in his article. But, it’s much easier to claim you would have written a brilliant lecture – if only you’d felt you were allowed to do it – than to actually write that brilliant lecture, isn’t it? So, I feel a weird sense of disconnection when I read Furedi’s piece (and other pieces like it). Yes, these students who yell out polemics in lectures, who force their lecturers to self-censor, sound like a worry. But … where are they, and why have I not met them yet?

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Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

The Guardian ran a piece today, reviewing the upcoming exhibition at the V&A, Opus Anglicanum, which focuses on the dazzling medieval embroidery produced in England in the fourteenth century. I was especially interested, because the book chapter I’ve been working on recently has to do with medieval textiles as objects that fire up the imagination – specifically, Chaucer’s imagination.

This is a really fascinating period for the textile trade in general: English weaving, for example, is just beginning to shift from being a craft carried out by women on a small scale, producing fabric from their own looms, to a more lucrative business on a larger scale, using a bigger, fancier loom, and dominated by … yes, of course, men. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, though set in France, is a beautifully imagined story of a household of weavers in such a situation, a story told partly through the eyes of Christine, a skilled weaver banned by her town’s guild from contribution to the official (and taxed) labour of her husband’s workshop.

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Penelope, cheerfully weaving away as Odysseus murders her suitors, in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. From London, BL MS Royal 20 C V, f. 61v (detail).

But many aspects of the trade were, and remained, associated with women. In this period, embroidery – the specific subject of the exhibition – was taking on a distinctly seedy reputation, for this very reason: its women practitioners were suspected of involvement in the sex trade. Women were strictly banned from moonlighting in the opposite trade – sex workers as well as textile workers – and a delightfully scandalous legal record of the late fourteenth century concerns the famous cross-dressing prostitute known as John (or, alternatively, Eleanor) Rykener, who electrified his witnesses by coolly declaring his habit of having sex with men while posing as a woman, and preferring to seek out priests for the better money they paid. Who was Rykener’s formative influence in this piece of (presumably, successfully constumed) deception? A embroideress known as Elizabeth the Broderer, already known to the courts for her role in trafficking young women into the sex trade, using her embroidery shop as a front. Such sensationalism about women and the textile trade persisted long after the Middle Ages, for what it’s worth: there’s a fantastic piece of writing by an anxious Parisian doctor in 1886, who claimed that the, ahem, stimulating friction caused by peddling a treadle-operated sewing machine was leading to a sexual frenzy amongst the city’s female garment-workers, leading to a generation of young women exhausted and weak from the debilitating effects of near-perpetual orgasm.

Well, if you say so.

But women working in the textile trades could, of course, be thoroughly respectable: we have plenty of records of solidly reputable medieval citizenry making their money from their cloth merchandise, and plenty of evidence of women in the trade organising morally improving situations for their young female apprentices. Indeed, as I wrote on this blog in 2014, by the fifteenth century, we can see parallels between highbrow courtly literature and the most prosperous London families working in the cloth trade, including women and their young female apprentices.

My interest in medieval textiles is piqued by these kinds of contextual detail – the scandals, the insights into ordinary working conditions, the changes in production that changed real women’s lives. But, I am aware that these textiles were also, often, incredibly beautiful and skilled products in their own right. The exhibition photos show sumptuous clerical vestments, spread to show the magnificent embroidery that would have draped over a priestly body, as well as rarer survivals of the humble equipment used to make them, and the fragments of material treated less kindly by time and the ravages of unscrupulous collectors. Reviewing the exhibition, Jonathan Jones admits to the significance (as well as the impact) of this work:

In the 14th century, if you wanted the very best cope or orphrey (a kind of long bishop’s scarf) you ordered it from embroidery workshops in London – the finest gothic embroideries in Europe were being done a stone’s throw from Old St Paul’s. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for “English work”, and it was in huge demand. In the middle ages, the embroidery makers of London had the kind of status that Flemish tapestry weavers were to achieve in Renaissance Europe.

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The Jesse Cope (detail) ca. 1310-25, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

So far, so positive, right? Admittedly, if you’re not particularly clued up, you might find the clarifying comparison of the last two lines about as clear as mud: I didn’t know what kind of status Flemish tapestry weavers had in Renaissance Europe, to be honest, and now I’m not much clearer. But ok.

Jones’s review provides the kinds of intriguing details I enjoy finding out in an exhibition – such as the fact that much of the clothing shown is, in fact, taken from the opened graves of medieval churchmen by archaeologists of later periods who did not scruple to remove even shoes and stockings. But it also seems ambivalent about its own displays of knowledge. Ultimately, Jones condemns

… the dry manner in which this exhibition relentlessly demands that we admire its orphreys. It misses the point about medieval religious art. … For no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.

I do find this a bit rich coming from someone who presumes we’re all up to speed about the state of Flemish tapestry making circa 1550. And I could certainly quibble about the rather bizarre idea that everyone in the fourteenth century enjoyed the kinds of unimpeded sight-lines to the altar that Jones seems to imagine here (medieval churches and cathedrals tended to have rood screens, blocking much of the view to the altar, and allowing the priest to get on with his business, as it were, in a semi-private space with God. It’s also, arguably, slightly dubious to talk about ‘harmonious’ singing in this context, at least as I understand medieval music, which is to say, not very much. But the major point that bothers me here about Jones’s rather style-over-substance image of medieval art as a vast multimedia experience is that it suggests that embroidery, on its own, just isn’t very much worth bothering with. It’s not like proper art, is it? The kind we are, of course, accustomed to seeing without the supervention of tinkly recorded plainsong or gently strobe-like light patterns mimicking the effects of stained glass.

And – cynic that I am – I can’t help wondering why medieval embroidery attracts this particular kind of criticism. Why is it so unworthy of an exhibition to itself, so direly in need of some kind of leavening of spectacle and show? Why does Jones cling so desperately to the nice chivalric image of the Black Price’s embroidered grave clothes and to his own vision of the bishop animating the robes with his busy masculine body?

Hmm. I wonder.

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Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Note: There is a more positive (and, frankly, for my money more interesting) review here, also from the Guardian and written by Maev Kennedy.

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Technologies of Touch and Queer Errors

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London, BL MS Royal 17 E VII 1, f. 247r (detail)


‘Reading medieval manuscripts … begins with the noise of the cover opening, depending on how tight and in what (boards, leather, velvet) the volume is bound, and with the dry sound of leather leaves touching each other. Light diffuses in opaque, milky, soft vellum but glances off stiffer, buttery parhment. The pigments capture and imprison the light, but even a hairline of gold sharply ricochets it back. … There is also a soft irregularity, as with a dollop of cream – although the ground is usually tinted red with minium, giving the gold its characteristic warmth. In comparison, gold applied directly to the page as dust or leaf looks somehow modern, like a house with a flat roof. Plants, seeds, slugs, trellises are painted directly over the gold ground, wasting swaths of it, except for a brief period after the gilder applied it and before the painter got his hands on it, a period confined by the workshop. … Then, there are the cuts and holes. Small slits allow the sinews of the binding to slide through. Regularly spaced pockmarks set the grid for the ruling or,far less frequently, mark a pattern copied from the master. Ink, if incompetently prepared, eats into the page. …’

Manuscripts are, apparently (and like so many things), ‘queer’. Queer in the Queer Theory sense, that is: queer as in ‘other’ or ‘strange’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘transgressive’, opposed to – and perhaps even capable of annihilating – the norm.

When I heard this statement made (and contested) at NCS this year, I immediately thought of the passage above. This gorgeously sensory description comes from a much longer set of passages in Anna Kłosowska’s book, Queer Love in the Middle Ages, in which she introduces a fascinating, speculative discussion of the complicated, layered, mutable ways in which we perceive and understand sexuality, with this passage on the precise tactile and visual experience of reading a medieval manuscript book. Kłosowska’s prose is both a virtuoso display of how to evoke sensory experience and also a practical demonstration of the value of seemingly tiny, decorative or curious details, to tell us about the lived experience of medieval scribes, illuminators, booksellers, book readers, and even the dismembered medieval cows and sheep whose skins form that disturbingly human-feeling surface on which all of this is written. It’s a sharp piece of writing, capturing the defiant but defining desire to touch the skin that marks out all confirmed medieval bibliophiles who’ve ever risked the wrath of a hovering librarian, and suggestively segueing from this into a discussion of a different kind of defiant-but-defining desire to touch skin that is socially verboten.

At the NCS conference this year, papers by Zach Stone and James Sargan got me thinking more about the way different surfaces and materials – not just vellum or parchment, gold leaf or brown ink, but also print as opposed to manuscript, modern print as opposed to medieval print, and digital media as opposed to hard copy – invite different kinds of touching, and militate against others. Manuscript ink, for example, is typically oak gall ink (as James observed). Printers’ ink, by contrast, is a much thicker, stickier substance. A nice illustration of the odd, back-handed ways we learn things is that I learned this detail, in the first place, from Cynthia Harnett, who wrote children’s fiction in the 1950s. With her novelist’s sensitivity to the way touch and materiality inform our experiences of the past, she picked up on details literary scholars were – I think it’s fair to say – rather less interested in at the time.

caxton

Glasgow, Hunterian Library, Sp. Coll. BV. 2. 30, f. 17v (detail)

Rather like Kłosowska, Harnett delves into the finished product (in her case, Caxton’s printed edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to think about the technologies behind that product and the lives and experiences of the people making it. She describes how a medieval printing press required at least two pairs of hands in the process: one, to cover the forms (letters) with sticky ink and the other – with clean hands – to lay the pristine sheet carefully over the top without smudging its surface. Print ink, therefore, militates against casual touching. It segments the production process in a way that manuscripts don’t absolutely have to, requiring a division of labour.

It’s tempting to interpret that resistance to touch, and that division of labour, as a form of ‘control,’ or even ‘policing’. We could say that the technology of print constrains makers, alienating them from the intimate, skin-to-skin contact experienced by the medieval scribes Kłosowska describes in such sensory detail. We could understand this process of the necessary division of the labour of in printing as a form of early mass production (which printing is, though the difference between print and manuscript really isn’t as big as you’d think, given manuscript makers were perfectly capable of farming out the illumination, rubrication and so on to someone else). We could – thinking back to Kłosowska’s seductive, suggestive parallel between the touching of pages and the touching of human skin – read this mode of production as an finger-wagging response to the lovely, messy, too-keen desires to touch, stroke, lift, pierce and limn manuscript pages.

It should not shock you to discover that (pre-empting the inevitable), no, I don’t think this makes manuscripts ‘queer’ and print culture a horrible, controlling, hegemonic impulse dedicated to straightening out their tactile quirks. But I know why that reading’s tempting – and it’s because it lets us map onto medieval technologies some of the drama of histories of sexuality, and (if we are manuscript scholars or people who love looking at, and hoping to touch, medieval manuscripts) it lets us place ourselves on the side of the angels, aligned with the tactile, queer, erotic technology and bravely opposed to the restricting regime of print. It lets us construct a sort of reverse-teleology of technologies, where the medieval represents sophisticated postmodern brilliance and every subsequent technological form becomes that bit more restrictive, one-dimensional, colourless and – we medievalists imply smugly – dull.

I have a bit of a problem with this, which I can best illustrate by thinking about how an academic, five hundred years from now, might look at today’s digital technologies.

We’re inclined to think of the digital as impermeable, untouched and untouchable, all surface. But information about it is laid down in the body. If a forensic archaeologist working five hundred years from now found my body, he or she would be able to identify the muscle attachments – the grooves in the bone – that show that I regularly type on a keyboard; moreover, that this keyboard has a bias towards certain letters. Even if no such keyboard survived, with those bones and a working knowledge of the letter distributions in the English language, you could have a fair crack at figuring out what it might have looked like. You could work backwards, as Kłosowska does, as Harnett does, to reconstitute the ways twenty-first century people touched and typed and sat and moved as they read, just as you can with a medieval manuscript.

In celebrating – maybe (and I think Kłosowska is getting at this, too) even fetishising the tactile and the sensory in medieval culture, we forget that we’re not untouchable in our own technologies. We’re not invisible readers and writers, leaving no traces. And we can’t easily conceal the sleights of hand that satisfy liberal desires to identify with the ‘queer’ – the other, the disadvantaged, the disruptive – while still allowing us to study the remarkably expensive products of a predictably narrow and privileged medieval elite.

 

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