The Artifice of Femininity: Double Standards in The Danish Girl

There are, obviously, spoilers for the film in this post.

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Still from The Danish Girl, starring Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne.

I saw The Danish Girl, the film loosely based on the real story of Lili Elbe, at the beginning of the month. But I’m only now writing this blog post, because it took (as usual) a little while to organise what I wanted to say. The film is a strange mixture. I thought it was subtle in the way it told the characters’ stories, moving and engaging. As you might guess if you know Elbe’s history, it is pretty dark, with some appallingly disturbing scenes: notably, the episode in which a doctor emotionlessly diagnoses Elbe as a homosexual and enforces a ‘cure’ involving radiation of the genitals, and the scenes of Elbe’s horrific pain following a surgery that was crude beyond belief. But – disappointingly – it’s also saccharine in places, with some surprisingly false notes.

First the good: the film is beautifully shot, and worth seeing on those grounds alone. It is truly painterly: a breathtaking series of natural images prepares us for the scene in which we see young Einar Wegener hailed as an up-and-coming artist, the painter who captures the spare, structural and natural beauty of the leafless trees we’ve just seen growing. As the film progresses, the imagery becomes richer, with heavy tactile fabrics, swishing kimonos, drapes and silky scarves. This visual vocabulary, in turn, is echoed in the paintings associated with Gerda Wegener, Einar’s ambitious, talented, and bohemian wife.

The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between these two. Lili Elbe isn’t played as a saint: there were times when you definitely sympathised with Gerda Wegener; times when Elbe’s actions and words seemed selfish, thoughtless, or shallow. This was refreshing: one of the things that annoys me about, for example, Sophia in Orange is the New Black is that she’s almost never allowed to be anything but an anodyne cardboard cut-out, tiredly bringing out clichéd remarks about hairstyles or Our Shared Struggles As Women. By contrast, Elbe comes across as a human being, and at the same time there’s a rare sympathetic portrayal of the struggles Wegener faces. And I could appreciate the film makers’ decision to portray Wegener as a heterosexual woman: it was a good change from the irritating and guilt-inducing contemporary assumption that female sexuality must always be ‘fluid’ and accommodating.

But, a bit of me is quite sad that the film makers decided to edit out the historical part of Elbe and Wegener’s lives during which they lived as an out lesbian couple in 1920s Paris. A quick google of Wegener’s art, made during this period, is eye-opening, and very different from the tasteful, Impressionist-lite images the film substituted – and the image below is definitely one of the politer pieces. But, in place of this, there’s a single scene, in which Elbe rocks an androgynously-tailored, lesbian-chic suit and is momentarily (and delightfully) thrilled to hear a couple of men speculating: “lesbienne?”

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Gerda Wegener, ‘Ved Spljlet’ (‘By the Mirror’).

… And then they beat her up. It’s undeniably moving that the film makers’ decided to follow this moment of Elbe’s delight in ‘passing’ with sudden violence from the men, and it’s sadly ironic that she’s treated to the same violence lesbians did and do face for being too easily confused with men. But the film doesn’t really explore the possibility that Elbe – or anyone else – might associate femininity with anything other than dresses and makeup, and certainly not with lesbianism. Indeed, it’s quite hard to interpret that scene of violence as anything other than the film’s own brutal insistence that there is only one legitimate way in which to be female.

And it was this insistence that began to nag away at me as I watched.

In one pivotal scene in the film, Elbe – whose cheerfully bohemian wife is in need of a model to stand in for the absent female subject of her current painting – draws a filmy silk stocking over a strikingly hairy, masculine-looking leg. It’s a moment that’s been criticised, with some viewers arguing that to reduce Elbe’s desire to transition to a single moment of rather coy cross-dressing (ooh! women’s underwear!) is a bit simplistic. My issue was different. We see Vikander’s naked body at several points during the film, and at no time are her legs anything other than perfectly hairless. This is, of course, a tacit nod to twenty-first-century aesthetics: audiences are deemed unable to imagine the possibility of an attractive woman who doesn’t come pre-packed as hair-free, even though it’s highly unlikely a woman living during this period (and wearing the long-skirted fashions Vikander’s character wears) would have been shaving her legs. Vikander’s femininity is socially constructed, but that social construction is actively obscured, hidden, made as invisible as the hair that surely grows on her legs.

I found this telling. I didn’t expect The Danish Girl to break the mould and go for exact historical verisimilitude. I read trash media; I know that women and men alike are (supposedly) transfixed with horror at the sight of a furry female and would be utterly unable to sustain their interest in a film that portrayed one. But that’s the problem. The film works very hard to make us believe that the main character we see is, and always was, a woman; it works against the fact that Redmayne, who acts Elbe, is a male actor. But, because it also makes invisible the performances we demand from female actors (Vikander) and not from male ones (Redmayne), the film lands itself with a problem of confused categories: why is this one leg hairy, when the other is not?

By contrast, the artifice Redmayne uses is highly visible – even too visible, leading to what’s probably the complaint I’ve heard most frequently about the film as a whole. Redmayne, as Lili, spends much of the film batting, fluttering, lowering and raising, his enhanced feminine lashes.

Critics on all sides have weighed in with acidic questions: is this Redmayne’s poor acting?Is it something the director decided? Does Redmayne imagine that being a woman is a kind of performance, a kind of artifice? Does he think transwomen all look like this? What is it? The questions keep coming, because – at root – we’re aware that there’s some visible artifice here, some mannerism, that obtrudes between us and our sympathy with Lili Elbe, the character. But discussing one kind of artifice has, I’d argue, blinded us to another kind, which is hidden in plain sight.

In the film, Redmayne wears lashings of thick mascara. And unlike Vikander’s shaven legs, this isn’t an anachronism. Like quite a lot of cosmetics, mascara is a bit of an irritant. It’s come on a long way since 1933, when a new product on the market caused the death of one woman and the blindness of sixteen more. But, however hypoallergenic a product may be, the advertising boasts of new, un-clumping formulas, lighter-weight versions and waterproof options remind us that painting something onto the hairs around your eyes is never going to be a totally fuss-free option, especially if you’re not used to it. On balance of probability, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Eddie Redmayne probably doesn’t wear mascara as a day-to-day habit, and certainly not heavy, thick, dark lashes like the ones in this film. It doesn’t particularly surprise me, then, that he’s batting his eyelashes a fair bit. It’s a natural reaction. And in an actor supposed to be playing a woman, nature looks like artifice.

These details – hairless legs, mascara’d eyes – may seem tiny. But they’re telling examples of the rigid system of expectations society places upon women, the rigid demands to perform femininity. For decades, feminists have been arguing that these performances – these ‘minor’ artifices – are neither transparently innate to women, nor matters of free and natural choice. This film – which might have taken the time to expose the artifice of what it means to be accepted as a ‘real’ woman – instead chose to essentialize differences rooted not in biology, but in the aesthetics of a misogynistic culture.

 

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‘There Seems To Be Some Queer Mistake’: The Film of Anne of Green Gables

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Still from the 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables (Megan Follows and Richard Farnsworth)

When you’re feeling a bit down, what you really, really need is a coven of feminists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of YA fiction through the ages. Luckily, I have such a thing, and last year, on one of those days when I was moping in bed with a cold, they put me onto the film versions of Anne of Green Gables. Weirdly, although I read the books years ago (and they’re free on Project Gutenberg, by the way, which is a lovely perk you get for reading stuff written in 1908), I’d never seen the films. I think I’d probably assumed they’d be travesties, a bit like the godawful TV adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books (note to anyone interested in adaptations: Pa is not a hunk. He does not have a square jaw and faraway gaze. We want no sex here. HTH). Plus, a cursory glance at the cover art of the Anne books through the decades shows just how bad things can get.

Obviously, you probably know I was wrong: the film of Anne is absolutely pitch-perfect and endearing and funny and just exactly what you need to curl up with for a couple of hours with a nice cup of tea and a warm blanket. And it’s also completely feminist-friendly. So, when I heard, yesterday, that there was going to be a new, updated version, I was quite pleased. Then I heard doom-laden pronouncements from said cultured feminist YA-reading friends. And I read that there were to be ‘new elements’ that would reflect “timeless issues, including themes of identity, sexism, bullying, prejudice, and trusting one’s self”. Oh, new version. No. Let me explain this to you. You do not need new elements. All the fun of the old version was introducing these ‘new elements’ yourself, through the time-honoured medium of cackling and sniggering at unintended innuendos. Allow me to explain. I present, for your critical assessment, ten moments of pure, unadulterated, queer-theory-is-my-bitch, gold dust:

10: ‘My Bosom Friend’

The theme of female friendship is what Anne’s story is really all about. And we’re not talking vague, fourth-wave gestures towards inclusion and exhortations to ‘self-care’ that turn out to be excuses to sell stuff. This is more along the lines of separatism, womyn’s lands (just minus the overt lesbianism and with an amused tolerance for a few decent men).  In the books, Marilla and the widowed Rachel Lynde eventually set up house together; in the film, the only time the widowed Mrs Hammond is shown in a good light is when her friend, comforting her, invites her to move in. So Anne’s burning desire for a ‘bosom friend’ to call her own isn’t odd in nature, only in the way she expresses herself. That said, in the books, the precise terminology just about passes without comment. By the 80s, it requires the scripting of a delightfully shocked interchange between the innocently precocious Anne and a slightly-less-than-heteronormative Marilla, exclaiming ‘a what kind of friend?!’

9: Kindred Spirits

I suppose if you’re really trying hard to queer it, you probably can. Anne and her ‘bosom friend’ do, eventually, have a brief platonic kiss and, er, they do break the bed. But really, queering isn’t the point here: what’s lovely about the film version is that Diana’s rewritten as a character who just enjoys things, with a very unproblematic refusal to beat herself up about anything. It’s a nicer, more female-friendly version than the books, where we hear Diana’s internal monologue and it tends to be irritatingly full of doubts about propriety and coy thoughts about boys.
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This is the 1908 first edition cover art, by the way, which is very, very period-piece and charming, but does have the minor drawback of making Anne look as if she’s permanently kinked her neck by wearing that volume of hair tied up on it.

8: ‘Sentimental Schoolboys’

In the film Anne, complaining about Gilbert, sounds extremely Elinor Dashwood: ‘Why can’t he just be sensible, instead of acting like a sentimental schoolboy?’ This is absolutely in the spirit of the books, but I don’t recall that specific phrase. In wider pop culture, the prhase is almost invariably in the feminine (‘sentimental schoolgirl’), so this change is nice. Plus, it gives me happy images of Jonathan Crombie playing Marianne in a gender-flip Austen. You can see it, right?

7: First Dance

At the ball, Diana asks Anne to dance, and they whirl around the floor alongside all the (mostly grown-up) male/female couples. I just love this, because why the hell not? It’s not in the book so far as I remember, but it would fit there fine: there’s no need for them to sit in the corner decorously waiting to be asked to dance.

6: Queering Parenting

Matthew (who speaks even less in the film than in the books) is determinedly unfussed about any incipient relationship between Anne and Gilbert. This isn’t in the books, and it isn’t an unqualified plus point for the films (why would Marilla – or Mrs Lynde – think Anne, in her mid-teens, shouldn’t be accepting a lift from Gilbert? And why on earth would they jump to the conclusion she’s flirting?). But, it is nice to have Matthew as the total opposite of the father-figure who censures his daughter for any kind of sexuality.

Which is why this travesty (cover art from 2013) is such a heap of Wrong. anne_of_green_gables_cover_a_l.jpg

5: Don’t Try That Shit Here

Gilbert gets tries a tiiiiny bit of emotional manipulation and gets slammed.

“I think you’re old enough to make up your own mind, Anne.”

“I’ve always been old enough to make up my own mind.”

Classy.

4) Don’t Try That Shit, Take Two:

Marilla’s fucking terrifying deadpan interrogation of Gilbert. Not remotely in the books – where Marilla takes a moment to feel slightly sad she turned down Gilbert’s dad – this bit is the only time I’ve ever seen a female character do the equivalent of the (admittedly, awful) Scary Dad to Prospective Suitor lecture.

3: Beyond Bechdel

The conversation that redefines the test (yes, I know it’s a flawed measure anyway). Anne and Diana sit up in bed, with Anne catastrophising about her exams. Diana, sensibly, motivates Anne with good old-fashioned academic competition. Technically, this is a ‘conversation between two women concerning a man’ and therefore Not Bechdel, but Gilbert features purely and entirely as Diana’s means of motivating Anne to want to kick his arse. Nice.

2: ‘There must be Some Queer Mistake’

I had to pause the film, rewind, and drink some tea to stop the cackles from choking me the first time I heard this, for I am deeply, deeply immature and have immature issues with queer theory. But this is just brilliant.

As Marilla realises that Matthew has brought home from the orphanage not the required boy – to help out with the farm work – but a girl, she comes out with this delightfully postmodern complaint:

“There seems to be some queer mistake, Sarah. We told Roberta to get us a boy.”

A ‘queer mistake’ is precisely what Anne is: a girl who should have been a boy, and an individual who destabilises all of Marilla’s narrow, tightly-controlled ideas about her own identity. In 1908, I can believe the term ‘some queer mistake’ raised nary an eyebrow. In 1985 – a year after Foucault died – I quite like to believe someone intended this one. 

1: Not quite Eddie Izzard

It’s the scene in which Matthew buys Anne her first dress with puffed sleeves. Yes, I know, in the books it’s brown Gloria, and Mrs Lynde takes pity on Matthew after his disastrous visit to the store, and makes it up herself. And yes, brown Gloria does sound a heck of a lot more attractive than the sky-blue eighties monstrosity they came up with, which does not make Matthew look (as Anne sighs) like a man of ‘exceptional taste’.

But I love everything they changed about this scene. In the books, Matthew’s mortified, tongue-tied attempts to pull himself together and talk to a woman results in a half-dozen desperate impulse buys, including 20lb of brown sugar, before he departs miserably, dress un-bought and intentions undeclared. But in the film, he manages to get control of his shyness long enough to whisper hoarsely across the counter ‘I want a dress!’

I cannot begin to say how much I adore the momentary look of utter shock in the saleswoman’s eyes, and the dawning moment before she realises he’s not asking for one for himself. This is truly brilliant: L. M. Montgomery couldn’t, I think, have written it and I’m fairly sure it was nowhere in her mind when she set out that scene. But it’s incredibly endearing, and it does bring home to you that – for a very, very shy man at the end of the nineteenth century – buying a child a dress was probably as difficult a secret to overcome as the same man admitting to cross-dressing in 1985, the date the film was made. And I’d love to imagine Marilla’s face if it were true …

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And one more for luck …

The brilliant Cath Andrews reminds me of something I should never have forgotten, from the books. In her teens, Anne dyes her hated red hair with dye intended to turn it ‘beautiful raven black’ … instead it turns her hair green, and so Marilla is forced to ‘shingle’ it.

Obviously, you could read this as Anne working the androgynous look (which I’d love, for the other sexy androgynous short-haired gingers out there). But – amongst Cambridge undergrads at least – green hair seems to be a sign of queer individuality that’s in danger of becoming a uniform …

 

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‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4

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At Peterborough Cathedral

This Wednesday, at 8.45pm, I’m speaking on the BBC Radio 4 series Four Thought. In addition to that broadcast, the programme will also be available as a podcast little later, in a longer version including questions from the audience.

I’ve been getting nervous all this week, because I was so excited to do this talk. I got to mention some of my favourite medieval women, amongst them Margery Paston, who stood up to her entire family plus the bishop of Norwich, and the brilliant, bizarre artist Jeanne de Montbaston, for whom this blog is named. But I was also a bit terrified – I wanted to do these women justice.

Radio is an unseen medium, and that feels oddly appropriate, because the women I study are – by and large – unseen women, as well as unheard and unheard of. We simply don’t know what Jeanne de Montbaston looked like, nor Margery Paston. When I think about medieval women’s lived experiences, I’m usually working backwards from laws drafted by men, texts copied by men, manuscripts compiled by men.

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But traces of women do survive, in the bodies of work they left behind. And I wanted to spend the rest of this post thinking about how I like to imagine these often unheard, unseen women.

Although no known picture of Jeanne de Montbaston survives, her name instantly calls to mind a host of evocative images: who could forget the strange penis tree, with its industrious company of nuns harvesting the fruit?

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Jeanne’s nun leads a (surprisingly enthusiastic) monk on a chain from his penis.

The penis tree image comes – like the other images on this page – from a series of illustrations Jeanne made for a copy of the bestselling Roman de la Rose, a poem firmly part of the male-dominated and misogynistic tradition, which she skilfully and boldly subverted. Jeanne’s artistic perspective remains resolutely original, refusing to conform to the expectations of a male-dominated literary culture. Her little nun is instantly familiar, with her expressive hands and lively face constantly suggesting personality, whether she’s picking penises, spreading her fingers wide to measure their unexpected size, bossily pointing the way forward for her captive monk, or pointing authoritatively at the text beside her.
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But my favourite of the series of illuminations is this final one, where the nun stands in a high tower, while her monk companion doggedly attempts to scale the walls with a rather precarious-looking ladder. The image evokes the classic trope of fairytale romance: the captive lady; the dashing man to the rescue. Jeanne must have known such stories: she provided images for the classic tale of Tristram, who rescued his lover Isolde. But this was not the story for Jeanne: her nun’s mouth is open mid-diatribe, her hands spread in almost preacherly eloquence, as if she’s turned the feminine tower into a decidedly masculine pulpit, and one fist is outstretched to rap on the top of the walls for emphasis … and she appears not even to have noticed the climbing monk whom she’s almost hit over the head. Does she need rescuing? Does she heck.

Jeanne’s name is known to us only through a quirk of fate: she might easily have been one of the thousands of medieval women whose personalities I can only reconstruct by imagining, by thinking how they might have thought, felt, reacted, spoken, responded, to the male dominated culture all around them. But in her images, she puts forward a vivid sense of self, a sense of personality, that demands our attention. Jeanne is an unseen medieval woman, a woman we can’t picture. But, today, the illuminations she made have been shared all over the internet and reproduced in books and papers and exhibitions. She is far more ‘visible’ for her work than her male peers, far better known than any male illuminator of the same period. By attending to medieval women – by sharing their work, reconstructing their lives, thinking about who they were and how they lived – we can bring them to life again, and let their voices be heard.

Notes

All images are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526.

Jeanne also provided images for texts about the Crusades and the voyages of Marco Polo, such as this one in the British Library, which tapped into contemporary interest in tall tales of exotic countries and exciting travel narratives. She worked on a manuscript of the French Voeux du Paon (‘the Vows of the Peacock), now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 165, a strange and ambiguous moral narrative. A copy of the popular Tristram romance with its salacious and sexy adulterous theme, also contains some images by Jeanne, and is now in the Getty Museum in New York (MS Ludwig XV 5). For more on Jeanne and her books, see:

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

D. J. A. Ross, ‘Methods of Book-Production in a XIVth Century French Miscellany (London, B. L., ms Royal 19. D. I.)’, Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études relatives aux manuscrits, 6 (1952), 63-75

Keith Busby, ‘Text and Image in the Getty Tristan, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV, 5′, in Medieval Manuscripts, Their Makers and Users: A Special Issue of Viator in Honor of Richard and Mary Rouse (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 1-25

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 40,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 15 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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‘Spices I have, in my Ships’: Crusaders, Caricatures and the Medieval Kitchen

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The image above comes from a manuscript made in the late fourteenth century. The company of the French king, Charles V, sit at a lavish dining table as they watch a re-enactment of the Crusades – complete with an impressive prop ship captained by the legendary hero Godfrey de Bouillon:

A ship with masts, sails and rigging was seen first; she had for colours the arms of the city of Jerusalem: Godfrey de Bouillon appeared on deck, accompanied by several knights armed cap-a-pee: the ship advanced into the middle of the hall, without the machine which moved it being perceptible. Then the city of Jerusalem appeared, with all its towers lined with Saracens. The Ship approached the city: the Christians landed, and began the assault; the besieged made good defence; several scaling-ladders were thrown down; but at length the city was taken.

This interlude brings together jingoistic nationalism with the celebrations of the feast. The association between celebratory food and the triumphal caricaturing of a subdued foreign enemy may seem strange, but it’s deeply rooted in medieval culture. Feasts were filled with symbols of status and hierarchy, with reminders of wealth and dominance. Nicola McDonald writes about the way a medieval delicacy known as ‘the Turk’s head’ – a  pie made to resemble a dark-skinned, long-haired man’s head with a luridly coloured filling, and flavoured with cloves, pepper, sugar and pistachio – reflects the same dehumanising attitudes towards ‘exotic’ foreign enemies that we find in the Crusader romances of the period.

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A Saracen or Ethiopian Crusader battles a Sea-Monster in a Fourteenth-Century Prayerbook

For kings – but also, increasingly through the medieval period, for prosperous people much further down the social scale – images of exotic foreignness went hand in hand with the luxury items for the table. As Charles V and his companions watched their interlude, they ate food flavoured with spices brought in on the same sea routes the Crusaders had followed in reverse.
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Medieval manuscripts are filled with recipies for ginger, for saffron, for cinnamon and mace. By the fifteenth century, we find recipes mentioning not only the spices, but also a new ingredient – sugar – and a play performed around 1500 has a character describe the exotic cargo of his merchant ships: ‘Spycis I hawe..In my shyppes..Gyngere, lycoresse and cannyngale’ (‘Spices I have … in my ships … ginger, liquorice, and galingale’). In the same year, the cosmopolitan text Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land foreshadowed a hundred foodie blogs in conflating quality of ingredients with obscurity of their source, advising: ‘Of peres..suche other comfytes, the further ye gone the better shall ye fynde, as well as grene gyngere’ (‘As concerns pears … and other such preserves, the further you travel the better quality you’ll find, and the same with green ginger’). These spices serve as metonyms for the geographies from which they come, representing the wide reach of English and French trading ships and the prosperity that enabled Western European nations to import their cargoes.

Recipies blend with medical remedies, with spices featuring in both. In one textbook on surgery, in a fourteenth-century manuscript, we find the recommendation to give patients ‘fleisch..sauerid with swete spicerie, as canel, gynger’ (‘meat … seethed in sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger’); in another, copied in the fifteenth century by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton, the list of ‘spices þat are hate: gynger, longe pepir, white pepir, aloes epotik’ (‘spices that are heating: ginger, long pepper, white pepper, liver-coloured [hepatic] aloes’).

Some concoctions sound fairly unpleasant to modern readers – in the 1325, we find instructions for cooking pike or turbot with almond milk, spices, saffron and sugar – though others sound more familiar, such as the ‘good hypocras’ made of wine and spices – mulled wine – recommended by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. In the Middle English romance Reinbrun, found in the London Auchinleck manuscript of the 1330s, we hear of merchants bringing expensive and varied stocks including spices:

Gingiuer and galingale,
Clowes, quibibes, gren de Paris,
Pyper, and comyn, and swet anis;

Fykes, reisyn, dates,
Almaund, rys, pomme-garnates,

Kanel and setewale …

(Ginger and galingale,
Cloves, cubeb [pepper], grains of Paradise,
Peper, and cumin, and sweet anise;

Figs, raisins, dates,
Almond, rice, pomegranates,
Cinnamon and turmeric … )

These spices were popular – luxury items, certainly, but in the category of luxuries affordable to quite a lot of reasonably well-to-do people, and as a treat, to more. Official documents relating to legal weights and measures give an intriguing insight, recording that ‘warys that be sold by the lb., as peper, saffryn, clowys, mace, gynger and suche other..be called Sotyll Warys’ (‘goods that are sold by the pound, as pepper, saffron, cloves, mace, ginger and such others … are called Subtle Wares’). The term ‘subtle’ suggests refined luxury, but the idea of buying a pound of ginger – let alone saffron – would be beyond most keen cooks’ budgets today.

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Comparative lists, giving the prices of various items – some luxuries, some common purchases – bear out the (relative) availability of spices. In a letter of 1471, one member of the Paston family writes to another, off on business, asking ‘sende me word qwat price a li. of peppyr, clowys, masis, gingyr, and sinamun’ (‘send me word – what price is a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon?’). As early as the thirteenth century, we find surnames redolent of the spice trade: Roger Spice, William Gingerer, Simon Pepperwhite.

The rich fragrance of spices, and their appealing colours and shapes, lent themselves to imaginative imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible translates the ornate lists of spices and aromatics in the Song of Songs into English as ‘fruytis of applis, cipre trees, with narde; narde, and saffrun, an erbe cleipid fistula, and canel, with alle trees of the Liban, myrre, and aloes, with alle the beste oynementis’ (‘fruits of apples, cypress trees, with nard [incense]; nard, and saffron, a herb called cassia, and cinnamon, with all trees of Lybia, myrrh, and aloes, with all the best ointments’).

The same lyricism, and same profusion of spices, is put to very different, and sadder ends, in the Middle English elegy Pearl, where the speaker laments over his dead daughter’s grave and declares:

That spot of spyses mot nedes sprede
Ther such ryches to rot is runne:
Blomes blayke and blwe and rede
Ther schyne ful schyr agayn the sunne.

(‘That spot must spread with spice-plants,
Where such richness has run to rot,
Blossoms yellow and blue and red
Must shine there, clear, against the sun.’)

As this lament reminds us – like the familiar imagery of the myrrh brought to the baby Jesus and foreshadowing his death – spices are also associated with the colder side of religious life. The preparation of spices for medicine gives rise to more monitory and penitential metaphors, such as this description of penitence, found in the didactic Book to a Mother:

Þe soule..pouneþ in a morter of hure conscience monye and diuerse bitter spices of hure synnes. 

(‘The soul … pounds in the mortar of her conscience many and diverse bitter spices of her sins.’)

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‘Thiese serpentes … with white peper theym feden.’

Spice suggests both sanctity and penitence, both sweet taste and bitter medicine, the mingled attraction and danger of the exotic. A (fictional) letter from the great conqueror Alexander claims that dragons – serpents – fed on white pepper.  In Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel A Load of Unicorn, the ringleaders of a Lancastrian plot against the Yorkist king Edward IV use a quick-witted Cockney spice-peddlar as go-between, and his seemingly innocent tallies of wares conceal a careful scheme to record covert sympathisers to the cause: “I’ll put them down as peppercorns in my list of spices.” 

The same link between spices and enemy threat crops up in Mummers’ Plays, which were recorded in versions from the medieval period onwards. There are several versions of the St George Mummer’s play – one here – and it makes use of the stock characters of medieval interludes and romances: St George, the enemy Turkish knight, the King of Egypt’s beautiful daughter. Early versions give St George a jingling rhymed challenge in defiance of the Turkish knight:

“I’ll slash him and stab him as small as the flies!
And send him to the cookshop to make mincepies!”

Later on, the homely English ‘cookshop’ is replaced with a more exotic location. In 1899, we hear:

“I’ll hack him up as small as dust,
And send him to Jamaica,
To be made into mince-pie crust!”

Here, ‘Jamaica’ probably functions not so much as a ‘real place’ as it does as a generalised symbol of the exotic, a mingled image of racial alterity and of the sugar and spices of mincemeat. Yet the racist undertone is pointed up by a third alternative, which has the valiant St George vow to send his Turkish adversary ‘to Satan, to make his mincepies!’.

Charles Causley’s brilliantly chilling Christmas poem ‘Innocent’s Song’ – which gives the Coventry Carol a run for its money – exploits the same imagery, with its description of the evil King Herod as a ‘smiling stranger/ With hair as white as gin’. Echoing the medieval ‘Saracen’s Head’ delicacy, or the Mummer’s Play with its Turkish knight chopped into spiced mince-meat, Causley’s poem transforms the human figure into a concoction from the medieval kitchen:

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

The image, like the earlier texts, turns a once-real threat of danger into something both more exotic, and more palatable. The texts exoticise and parody images of foreignness in a way that makes us uncomfortable, linking to a disturbingly long tradition of caricatured, indeterminate foreign Others – Saracen, Turkish, Jamaican, Ethiopian; they also draw on the seductive scents and tastes of spices to cover up – like rotten meat – the unsavoury hints of nationalistic propaganda lurking beneath.

But, there is another side to this coin. The images and anecdotes, recipes and remedies and lists of prices for spices here prove to us that medieval English men and women were not cut off from a world of cultural – and racial – difference. Even ingredients we tend not to expect in medieval cooking – sugar, for example, or cubeb peppers, cumin, turmeric – are all there alongside the more traditionally-expected mace, ginger and cinnamon. In the same way, these texts and images are part of a wider reminder that medieval England – and medieval Europe – were not unvaryingly white spaces. The Medieval People of Color project – which I’ve mentioned before, and which regularly receives abusive comments for its excellent work uncovering the histories and images of medieval people of color – gives a fascinating and complex picture.

It’s hard to guess at what ordinary medieval people – of whatever skin colour – thought of the images around them, or of the geographies evoked by the spices that passed through their kitchens. But we can at least look at this history and acknowledge it, think about it, work its images of strangeness and familiarity into our understanding of the medieval past.

Happy Christmas!
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With thanks to Ruth Allen for the St George Mummers’ Play, Sjoerd Levelt for the baby dragon in the margin of BnF Latin 919, and Emma Goss for food styling. 

References:

Food History Almanac, Vol 1, ed. Janet Clarkson (2014)

Peter Millington, ‘Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries’, Folk Drama Studies Today (2003), 97-132.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: University Press, 2003), pp. 124-150.

Images in this post are taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813; London, British Library, Add MS 4213o; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919; Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456 and London, British Library, Royal MS 10.

The medical textbooks are to be found respectively in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1396 and Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91. The play with the spice-merchant’s ships is found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in Dublin, Trinity College MS 652. The Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land is found in London, British Library, Cotton Appendix 8. The Book to a Mother is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 416.

 

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A Siege of Herons and a Winter Forest: Carols, Poems and Stories for Christmas

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When I emptied out my desk in search of Christmas cards, I realised I’d been stockpiling quite a bit. Wrapping paper with yew and ivy and Christmas berries on it; stocks of illuminated manuscripts; multiple versions of deer in winter (I understand you can buy a Primark Christmas jumper with queer deer now, too); lots of birds sitting in amongst the illuminated branches and Christmas greenery. I’ve got birds on the tree, too, and my housemate made a wreath with mistletoe, holly and fir cones from Cambridge Botanic gardens (she works there). And I’ve been cutting back the laurel and ivy hedges in the back garden so I’ve got a mug full of ivy berries.

IMG_3428 It’s all traditional Christmas imagery – the outside brought inside; the reminders of winter forests. But for medieval people, Christmas was not just a mid-winter festival; it was also the culmination of the fasting season of Advent and the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional time for Christmas games and feasting and also for hunting the animals to provide the Christmas food. The religious festival itself had a plangent and brooding undertone, which you can see from carols such as the mournful Coventry Carol, the austere, foreboding and triumphal ‘Out of Your Sleep/Arise and Wake’ and ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, with their glances out from Christ’s nativity to the Harrowing of Hell it foreshadows. These carols shift our attention, from the expected centrality of Christ’s nativity, to focus on the narratives that run alongside, and outside, this one.

In Carol Ann Duffy’s modern Christmas poem Wenceslas, some of this atmosphere is recreated in a series of strange juxtaposition between inside and outside, celebration and sorrowing, feast and funeral. With deceptive nursery-rhyme cheer, the poem begins:

The King’s Cook had cooked for the King a Christmas pie,

Wherein the swan
Once bride of the river,
Half of forever,
six Cygnets circling her,
lay scalded, plucked, boned, parboiled,
salted, peppered, gingered, oiled;

and harboured the Heron,
whose grey shadow she’d crossed
as it stood witness,
grave as a Priest,
on the riverbank.

Now the heron’s breast was martyred with cloves.

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Heron, hanging from a hook, in the shape of a letter T (London, BL MS Add. 82957)

Inside the Heron inside the Swan –
In a greased cradle, pastry-sealed –
a Common Crane,
gutted and trussed,
smeared with Cicely, Lavender, Rose,
was stuffed with a buttered, saffroned
golden Goose.

Within the Goose,
perfumed with Fruits, was a Duck,
and jammed in the Duck, a Pheasant,
embalmed in Honey
from Bees
who’d perused
the blossoms of Cherry trees. 

You can read the whole poem online in the Guardian, with one of the beautiful images Stuart Kolakovic made to go with it, but if you can, look at the book – the layout is beautiful, scattering the lines amongst the images in random groups like little flurries of snow. This piecemeal, meandering structure reflects the disparate prior voices Duffy brings together – stealing the image of the heron-priest from Dylan Thomas, echoing the fifteenth-century feast atmosphere of Caput apri defero, and ending with a sideways glance at George Herbert’s seventeenth-century prayers.

As we read the poem we move from the strangely mournful image of the swan on the winter river, to a brief glimpse straight out of a saint’s life (‘now the Heron’s breast was martyred with cloves’), to a self-consciously old-fashioned list of ingredients reminiscent of Sophie Grigson quoting Elizabeth David (‘Pot-herbs to accompany this;/ Roasted Chestnuts, Red Cabbage,/ Celery, Carrots, Colly-flowre’).

Much of this is very medieval. Especially towards the end of the period – in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – people constructed their books in the same way we might use a notebook, or even in the way we might use a shelf on a bookcase: to bring together often-used bits of writing. So you find everything from recipes and jotted notes about the washing or the neighbour’s boundary, to copies of legal agreements or medical prescriptions, to stories, poems and prayers, saints’ lives, and recipes.

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‘Here biginneth a Boke of Kokery’ (London, BL MS Harley 4016, detail)

One such recipe gives details for the preparation of the second bird in Duffy’s faintly elegiac listing of waterfowl, with a practicality that undercuts her image of the living bird standing predator on the riverbank:

The heyroun schal be diyht as is the swan and it come quyk to kechen. The sauce schal be mad of hym as a chaudon of gynger & of galyngale, & that it be coloured with the blood or with brende crustes that arn tosted.

Another recommends that:

Cranys and Herons schulle be euarmud [wrapped] wyth Lardons of swyne and rostyd and etyn wyth gyngynyr.

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‘Inside the swan inside the heron …’

The details of these recipes – perhaps not the prevalent ginger, but certainly the bread sauce and the wrapping of a bird ready for roasting with strips of fatty bacon – sound timeless, not so very different from the way many of us might cook a turkey or a goose for Christmas Day.

But the medieval choice of bird here – the heron – was a wildfowl, suggestive of icy lakes and cold grey rivers rather than cosy farmyard domesticity. In medieval bestiaries, we read that herons represent those who shun and fear ‘the disorder of the world’, and whose spirits seek to soar upwards. The collective term for a group of herons is a ‘sege‘, the same word that in modern English is spelt ‘siege’, an the word symbolises the strange sense of mingled threat and danger with which these birds are associated in a string of medieval (and post-medieval) lyrics, carols and stories: both predator and prey, linked both to the Christmas feast and to the chilly winter riverbank outside the court.

In the otherworldly romance Sir Orfeo, a king’s wife is abducted into a supernatural kingdom as she sleeps, and the king sees her – silent and surreal – only when she rides out to hawking in a company of sixty ladies who pass him by unspeaking:

And ich a faucoun on hond bere,
And riden on haukin bi o rivere.

Maulardes, hayroun, and cormeraunt;
The foules of the water ariseth,
The faucouns hem wele deviseth;
Ich faucoun his pray slough …

(And each one carried a falcon in her hand,
And rode, at hawking, by the river.

Mallards, herons, and cormorants:
The fowls of the water arise;
The falcons well their way devise;
Each falcon slew his prey …)

It’s eerie: the lost woman has become transmuted from prey to predator: first the victim of a hunt, she now plays out in dumb-show the same dynamic, caught in an enchantment just as the water-birds are caught in the talons of the falcons.

This type of hunting provides the backbone for a charged episode in Rosemary Sutcliff’s spare, poetic novel Knight’s Fee, set in the eleventh century. The young protagonist, Randal, slips out unnoticed to confront his foster-father’s enemy as the men ride to a heron hunt, and the tension of his uneven match with this man is foreshadowed in the tension of the birds above the river bank:

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Guillaume Tardif, Book of Falconry (Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 269, detail)

… The heron climbed desperately the blue circles of the upper air, striving to gain height to use her own weapon, her dagger bill; and behind her the falcons mounted steadily, dark-winged death on her track. Randal could hear the hawk bells ringing, a shining thread of sound as thin as lark song, as they climbed, and narrowed his eyes to follow the deadly chase. Up and up and up into the sunlit blue and silver of the February sky, until at last the foremost falcon, soaring like an arrow from a bow, overtopped her and stooped, avoiding the despairing dagger thrust of her beak, and made his kill.

The falcon – the traditional adversary of the heron – features in a medieval carol, too:

Lully lullay, lully lullay,
The faucon* hath borne my make** away                              *falcon      **mate

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown,

In that orchard there was an hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall,

And in that hall there was a bed,
And it was hanged with gold so red.

And in that bed there lith a knight
His woundes bleeding day and night

By that beddes side ther kneleth a may
And she weepeth both night and day. 

And by that beddes side ther standeth a stoon
Corpus christi* writen thereon.                                                 *Body of Christ

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Bird of Prey, Stained Glass at Monks Risborough

The carol lifts us up, listening, into the spaces between things, spaces governed by unmoored prepositions – up, down, and finally the repeating ‘away’ of the refrain, that places the action beyond the reach of the speaker. John Stevens argues that the carol echoes a much older romance, the story of Yonec by Marie de France. The protagonist of the story is a woman who is imprisoned in a tower by her jealous husband. Her lover takes the form of a dark-winged goshawk and flies through her window, proving his good faith to her by taking the Eucharist (the Body of Christ) in a Christian mass. Suspecting infidelity, the jealous husband surrounds his wife’s tower window with iron spikes, which mortally wound the hawk. A trail of blood leads the woman to a city of silver, where she finds the hawk-knight on his deathbed. Fleeing away, she hears the bells of the city tolling for his death, and when her son is born, she seeks out the tomb of his dead father to inspire him to revenge.

It’s possible the carol is evoking some – or all – of this, but the romance is mingled with religious iconography – with the weeping maiden as the Virgin Mary, the wounded knight as Christ and the tombstone bearing its Eucharistic message. Because it is a ‘carol’ – a poem with a refrain – it became caught up in later celebrations of Christmas, and drawn more centrally into the religious narrative of the nativity.

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In Alison Uttley’s novel A Traveller in Time, a teenage girl, Penelope, goes to stay in the ancient manor farmhouse of her aunt and uncle, and finds herself slipping backwards in time. Uttley bases the novel on the Babington plot against Elizabeth I, the (doomed) plan to free the captive Mary Queen of Scots, led by the impetuous young Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire squire living in the manor house on which she sets her story. Uttley’s story is full of Penelope’s sense of fear and involvement, of dislocation from her time, and it echoes with carols and with scenes of winter weather:

The stars slowly faded as I stood there, the brightness was dimmed, a cloud seemed to move over the surface of the heavens and an icy stillness made me shiver with apprehension. Then there was a sound so faint I felt it with my own extreme consciousness, a movement as the earth listened also. A few feathers of snow shimmered through the air, then more and more, great flakes came fluttering down, caught in their beauty by the light from an unshuttered window, heralding a snowstorm.

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‘Grene growth the holy’ (London, BL MS Add. 31922, f. 37v (detail)).

The details of the novel keep reminding us that Penelope knows more – or should know more, in the present day – than the people around her, including the ultimate fate of the plot unwinding around her. In particular, Uttley has a repeated theme of familiar songs.

When asked to sing for her sixteenth-century audience, Penelope is forced to explain how she already knows a song brand-new to her audience, and at Christmas, she hears the lady of the house, Mistress Babington, learning a new Derbyshire carol to sing for her husband. It’s another version of the Corpus Christi Carol:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
It’s covered all over with purple and pall –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
Covered all over with scarlet so red –

And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn –
The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring
Which ever blows blossom since Adam was born –
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

                                Over that bed the moon shines bright –
                                       The bells of Paradise, I heard them ring –
                               In sign that our Saviour was born this night –
                                                              And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

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‘Down in yon forest there stands a hall’

Here, the austere medieval carol is transformed into a more celebratory Christmas song, its refrain explicitly devotional and its conclusion triumphantly related to Christ’s nativity. The mysterious imagery of the earlier version, with its ties to supernatural and romance narratives, is replaced with a well-known image of the thorn that ‘ever blows blossom since Adam was born’, an image that ultimately derives from the Latin Vulgate version of the Christmas reading from Isaiah: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. In the Latin, the word for ‘rod’ is virga, a green stalk, and it puns on the word virgo, the Virgin Mary, from whom Christ – the descendent of the royal house of Jesse – is to be born. It’s the sort of prophetic punning link between Old and New Testament that medieval religious thinkers found particularly reassuring, and it draws the odd carol onto firmer religious ground, away from its strangely resonant ambiguities.
Much later, in Scotland, we find another version surfacing, clearly part of the same tradition and closely linked to the earliest, medieval carol:

The heron flew east and the heron flew west,
The heron flew to the fair forest,

there she saw a lovely bower,
Was a’ clad o’er wi’ lilly-flower,
And in the bower there was a bed
With silken sheets, and weel down spread,
And in the bed there lay a knight
Whose wounds did bleed both day and night;
And by that bed there stood a stane,
And there was set a leal* maiden                                               *loyal
With silver needle and silken thread
Stemming the wounds when they did bleed.

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Here, we’re back to the images of the dying knight – with just a suggestion of the Virgin Mary in the association of the maiden with the lily, the emblem of the Virgin – but in place of the predatory falcon soaring over the orchard and the forest hall, we have the falcon’s prey, the heron, flying over the woodland.

The three carols, across three centuries, return over and over to images of the wilderness – the stooping falcon, the winter forest, the flying heron. The glances of wilderness and cold, of the terror of the hunt and the threat of discovery – recall another medieval bird image, Bede’s sparrow – blown by winter gales into the sudden light, warmth and noise of the hall and darting immediately out of the opposite window into the storm again. The tension, poignancy, and even the eerie fearfulness of these texts make them perfect for Christmas – reminders of the wilderness and darkness outside, while we sit inside reading in the warmth.

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Medieval Stained Glass, Shibden Hall, Halifax.

 

 

 

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A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail

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Crusaders and Saracens Battle. Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

A few weeks ago, while I was busy with various things including signing an open letter written by my colleague*, I discovered in passing that a very small group of people I’d never met or spoken to were getting quite het up about my teaching of Medieval romance. This was, naturally, a bit of a surprise. My students seemed broadly quite positive about the course, so I put it to the back of my mind. But, this morning, I saw something on David Perry’s blog – Islamophobic rallies in Prague were attended by participants wearing the costumes of medieval Crusaders – and something suddenly clicked for me.

The criticism I’d received had come from a Change.org petition (I’m not sure whether to be insulted or pleased it’s only got 94 signatures, or rather less than a full lecture hall). The main critique focussed on our open letter, but I also came to a criticism – apparently written under the misapprehension that I’m a history lecturer, but clearly referring to my course:

“A more legitimate concern in academia should be that a history lecturer calling for this act of censorship thinks Medieval romance perpetuates Islamophobia –  a breathtaking a-historicism that really should have alarm bells ringing.”

At the time, I was bemused.

Did the writers think Islamophobia didn’t exist in the Middle Ages? Did they not realise that the Crusades took place between Christians and Muslims? Did they think Islam didn’t exist? Or was the issue that I was commenting on these romances as texts that have continued to shape our cultural imagination, rather than dusty historical documents that could not possibly have any influence on present day Islamophobia?

I suspected it was largely the last issue. Medieval romances have a peculiar status in popular imagination. If you ask most people to name a medieval story or a medieval author, they’ll come up with Chaucer. But if you start telling them the plots of medieval romances, they’ll recognise quite a lot of these before they even get close to recognising the plot of, say, The Book of the Duchess or The Prioress’s Tale. And I’m not just talking about the well-known Arthurian legends, or the Robin Hood stories. There’s a children’s picture book, which was one of my big brother’s favourite stories, which retells the tale of the Middle English romance Robert of Sicily, a text so obscure to medievalists that I often have to go through the plot when I talk about it at conferences. The plots and tropes of medieval romances are hidden in plain sight.

By contrast, history is quite regularly cited on all sides of the debate over Islamic/Christian relations (or Islamic/Western relations). President Obama has been heard to refer to the Crusades as an example of Islamophobic warfare; one response – which also claimed the Catholic Church had “almost nothing to do with” the Inquisition – was to label these wars as “a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages”. While I applaud the alliteration, and look eagerly forward for the Don Draper spoof it suggests to me, ‘Muslim madmen’ isn’t exactly the most nuanced idea, and nor is it new – and this continuity is what the fiction shows us.

Medieval romances portray Islamic (or ‘Saracen’) opponents as raging, intemperate, unchecked by Christian piety. The Siege of Milan, for example, opens with a description of Saracen atrocities perfectly calculated to enrage Christian listeners:

“The Sultan, Arabas the strong
Warred against Christendom with wrong,

In Tuscany, towns did he win,
And stuffed them full of heathen kin,

The images that there should be,
Both the Cross, and the noble Mary,
He burned them in a fire. 
And then his idols he set up there,
In the churches and abbeys that there were.”

The passage is crammed with clichés. Brute force? Check. Moral absolutes? Check. Desecration of religious icons and pyromaniac destruction of culture? Check. Idol worship? Check. You get the picture. This isn’t a sober historical account of cultural conflict – and I like to imagine hard-bitten Crusaders, permanently sun-burned from years living cheek-by-jowl with their Muslim opposite numbers, sniggering heartily into their beards at the idea of Islamic idol-worshippers. But my absolute favourite detail comes in the middle lines: like a Daily Mail columnist on a slow news day, the writer crams in a topical reference to the dangers of immigration, with the hyperbolic image of Tuscan cities crammed with ‘heathen kin’. THESE MUSLIM EXTREMISTS BURNED A CHURCH: NOW THEY’RE BRINGING THEIR FAMILIES TO YOUR HOLIDAY VILLA!

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Muslim Extremists Sunbathing, circa 1499.                       Bodleian Library, MS Douce 337, f. 85r

Is the history of the Crusades that has seeped into cultural consciousness, or is it the fiction? Images of enemy foreigners, dark-skinned, brutal, impressively strong, and ferociously determined to crush out Christianity and insinuate foreign ‘kin’ into European cities, echo through Medieval romances. Long after we stopped thinking about Medieval romance, we continued to consume stories in which the enemies and anti-heroes are cast from the same mould, part of the same set of tropes.

It’s not hard to see that narratives like the one I quoted above are perpetuating an Islamophobic perspective. But, when we fail to trace contemporary tropes of Islamophobia back to their medieval sources, we miss a crucial part of the narrative.

When the Siege of Milan was likely written, some time around 1400, the world it described was already far in the past. The simplicity of noble, Christian Crusaders and brutal Saracen invaders offers both distraction from much messier contemporary conflicts (the early shadows of the Wars of the Roses, the violent inter-Christian battles with France), and also a covert message about England itself. Like the Daily Mail, the romance seeks to externalise the threat of disorder, to personify it as belonging to foreign aggressors. But at this time, the desecration of church images of ‘the Cross and the noble Mary’ – iconoclasm, that is – was a threat much closer to home. The Lollards, the heretical sect who became prominent towards the end of the fourteenth century, posed a real threat to the statues, icons, and paintings that enriched medieval churches across the country. For readers of this romance in the fifteenth century, the idea of destructive, iconoclastic violence is unmistakably mapped onto earlier images of religious warfare, of Saracen enemies, as if to insist that such a threat could only come from outside.

I suspect we want to believe that a medieval world capable of the brutality of the Crusades was motivated by simple, ideological hatred. Yes, such brutality – witnessed by historical records – is appalling, but these people were not like us. The murky, conflicted and submerged fears I see in this medieval romance make me question that assumption. This fiction allows its readers to externalise those conflicted, nagging fears that come from within and to give them simpler, more tangible forms, to translate them into stark archetypes of good and evil. It does not merely reflect a past society that hated and feared Islam; it reflects a past society that exploited the idea of hatred and fear of Islam for its own ends. This, for some people, is a disturbing idea, an idea that must be slapped down as ‘a-historical’. If we accept that medieval Christendom was motivated by something more cynical, more complex, than burning religious ideology and passionate conviction, then we’re faced with the disturbing possibility that we are, truly, not so very different from the Crusaders who committed those atrocities.

Postscript

The image at the top of my post shows armies neatly identified by their respective religious symbols: the cross for the Christian crusaders; the crescent for their Muslim opponents. But underneath this image, in pointed contrast to its militaristic aggression, is an image you might read as cultural exchange, or at least as an interesting contrast to the scene above. It shows two people sitting in a military tent – perhaps during a lull in the fighting – playing a game of chess.

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Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

Note *

This open letter is discussed here and here. It concerned a promotional video for the University of Cambridge, which was presented by David Starkey.

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