Silence, Suffering, and a Shakespearean ‘Cutted Up Pear’

 

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Hitomi Manaka as Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus (Ninagawa, 2006, RSC).

This post is closely based on part of a lecture – the second of a series – given at the University of Cambridge on 28/04/16. It includes, amongst other things, responses to the current British Library exhibition ‘Shakespeare in Ten Acts’. The lecture series was titled ‘Shakespeare: Performing the Unspeakable,’ and its two sub-parts were ‘Silence’ and ‘Suffering’. 

Recently, I gave a couple of lectures on the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays – both in themselves, and as cultural artefacts – prompt us to think about the relationships between silence, suffering, and complicity. Shakespearean silence has a compelling performance history. In Shakespeare’s plays, the scripted silences – moments when, for example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalks away unspeaking from Horatio, or Cordelia refuses to elaborate on her brief response to her father – are many, and well known.

But there are, too, silences of a less certain kind. Silences that teeter on the brink between scripted and unscripted, that stretch out between the stage and the audience and last just long enough to cause a stir, an uneasy rustle of doubt.

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Barbara Jefford and John Gielgud in Measure for Measure

One such example comes from Barbara Jefford’s performance of Isabella in Measure for Measure. In the script as we have it, Isabella – the virtuous novice who leaves her convent to petition for her brother’s life and attracts the romantic attention of the Duke – speaks for the last time several dozen lines before the end of the play.

In that time, the Duke twice proposes marriage to her, and twice receives no scripted answer. Some productions solve the problem – an eager nod, a horrified shake of the head – but Jefford, instead, froze in silence. She waited until the uneasy rustles and stirs of her audience communicated that their watching discomfort was too much – and only then did she speak. At the first performance, the silence reputedly lasted for around thirty seconds. As the production run continued, audiences collaborated: in their increasingly prolonged silences, they tacitly reinforced her decision to freeze out the spoken script and drown the duke’s proposal in a prolonged and shared speechless response.

Jefford’s silence allows the audience – supposedly passive – to collude with the character’s refusal to assent to a proposal of marriage that is phrased as a command. It sets into sharp prominence the assumptions about power and oppression that are latent in the text. The actress’s silence capitalizes on the permeable boundary between actor and audience, and it offers a succinct demonstration of the way in which plays – and characters, and characters’ responses – become rooted in time, snagged into the contemporary debates by hooks and links and tensions we can barely recognise, but whole constraining and constructing effect we still must feel.

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Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello. James Northcote, c. 1826.

This was the tension negotiated by Ira Aldridge, often described as the ‘first’ black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello. Born in 1807 in New York, Aldridge worked for much of his career in Britain. Audiences of the time romanticised Aldridge – indeed, he and the companies with whom he acted encouraged this romanticisation – picturing him not as the son of freed slaves and born in New York, but as a mysterious and noble African, estranged from his natal land and bearing evocative hints of a hidden story to tell. Perhaps shrewdly, Aldridge claimed descent from the Fulani people – even then, a group (or groups) dispersed over a wide area and representing people born in several different African countries – and this deliberate exoticism was balanced by posters representing him as an ‘African Roscius,’ a name that alluded to the Roman actor and freed slave, whose name was a byword amongst Shakespeare’s own contemporaries for Classical excellence in acting.

Aldridge’s presence tacitly argued that a black actor could – and did – embody and communicate the emotions Shakespeare had written for is characters, the identity that this white dramatist had constructed for a white performer. He made visible the argument – polemical at that time and in that place  – that a black man could embody all the emotions of white humanity.  Amidst this was a tacit – and occasionally, explicit – division within Aldridge’s audiences, between those who saw his acting as propaganda to stoke contemporary arguments against the slave trade, and those who had vested interests – based on that same trade – in castigating a black man who dared to see himself as a talented actor interpreting the most canonical works of a white dramatist. For Aldridge did not only play Othello. He also – in whiteface – took on the roles Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III and Lear, and even Iago: famous roles that have been closed to black actors until very recently, and which still draw racist comments when played by actors who are other than white.

Aldridge died after a phenomenally successful career, and shamefully, his record of acting Shakespearean heroes has remained closed to actors of colour. Often, the objection made is that audiences would not accept a black Hamlet, Lear, or Richard III. The absurdity of the criticisms Ira faced is nicely captured by David Oyelowo, who comments acerbically:

Theatre by its very nature is make-believe. If I’m on stage and I say I’m in tears, you believe me. If I say I’ve got an army of 30,000 offstage, you believe me. I don’t know why if I suddenly say I’m King of England that is so much more controversial.

This outburst was in my mind as I prepared to think about the violence – not only racial, but also gendered – in one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most vilified plays, Titus AndronicusTitus is a gruesome, intensely bloody, violent and spectacular play, a play whose eponymous hero – the battle-hardened and well-respected Roman general Titus, the people’s choice for the newly-vacated post of Emperor of Rome following the death of the old Emperor and the unresolved squabbles of his two sons – experiences a devastating reversal of fortunes. Bent on revenge for his sons’ deaths in war, Titus orders the sacrifice of a young captive prince of the Goths, son of the captive queen Tamora. In counter-revenge, Tamora and her lover – delightfully known, with Shakespearean casual racism, as ‘Aaron the Moor’ – plot against Titus, arranging the rape of his daughter Lavinia by Tamora’s other sons. Not content with rape, the two men cut out Lavinia’s tongue and chop off her hands, to prevent her from speaking, or in any way gesturing or signaling, what has happened to her.

DEMETRIUS:
So now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.

CHIRON
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.     (Titus, Act 2, Sc. Iv, 1-4)

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Elizabeth Applyby as Tamora, Titus Andronicus, New Wimbledon Theatre, 2016.

Titus was extremely popular in its day, but it has been widely seen as unperformable, and the language in which it is criticised carries its own telling tacit messages about what it is that so signally failed to impress generations of readers. In 1687, Edward Ravenscroft declared:

‘tis the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works; it seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure.

Ravenscroft makes an obvious pun in his language of distaste: he cannot ‘digest’ a play centred on human flesh made grotesquely palatable. He is, of course, punning on Titus’ own grim revenge. Having trapped Tamora, queen of the Goths, mother of the men who raped and murdered his daughter, in his house, Titus makes his grim declaration of intent:

TITUS: … with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on (Titus, Act. V, Sc. Ii, 86-92)

This violence was complicated, in a production put on by RSC-based actor and director Antony Sher and his partner Greg Doran, which played in Johannesburg in 1995, and which is the subject of Sher’s book Woza Shakespeare. As Sher observes – and as others have subsequently recognized – the 1995 production offered a challenge to prevailing ideas about which accents were ‘speakable’ on stage, or at least ‘speakable’ for Shakespeare. The accents of the cast included a variety of South African accents – by no means British (or rather, English) ‘Received Pronunciation’. This was a double-layered resistance to silencing: not only were these accents seldom those heard on stage – and therefore, never those associated with Shakespearan tragedy or High Culture – but also, they make ‘speakable’ the racial and class conflicts represented by (for example) Sher’s version of his father’s Afrikaans accent.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Woodburne, who played Lavinia in Doran’s production, engaged in research for her role that included meetings with individuals who had undergone amputation of the tongue, for example as as a surgery for cancer. Woodburne discovered that the loss of a tongue did not merely cause sufferers to lack speech. The amputation also resulted in an inability to swallow saliva – forcing sufferers to drool, or wipe saliva constantly from their mouths. It was a lack of dignity, as well as a form of silencing.

But responses to the play reiterate some of the repressive attitudes directed, much earlier, against the playing of Othello by black actors. Sher’s book records a letter, sent privately to Doran by a would-be theatregoer (and the audience we’re talking here would be predominantly white and often Anglophile), saying:

“she could not abide the excruciating experience of the ugly accents of South Africa abusing some of the most beautiful language ever written” (Sher and Doran, Woza Shakespeare, p. 226)

The terminology of this woman’s complaint – terms of ‘ugly’ foreign accents silencing ‘beautiful’ language – is shocking, in that it casts Doran as director, and his actors, in the roles of the rapists Chiron and Demetrius, abusing Shakespeare’s beautiful language. Doran is a skilled director, and no doubt the quotation he chooses to reproduces is carefully selected, but nevertheless, its terminology is extremely telling in is tacit assumptions. The idea of ‘ugly accents’ of one country “abusing” the beautiful language of another is too disturbingly suggestive in the context of Lavinia, a woman whose ‘beautiful’ tongue is ‘abused’ and silenced by the ‘ugly’ activity of invaders to her native land, invaders who – in this production – were played by mixed-race men speaking in accents inseparable, for listening audiences, from the fact of their ethnic heritage.

Doran’s decision to remind us that whiteness is not default, that Received Pronunciation accents are not the only way to play Shakespeare, come together here, to result in a production some would-be viewers found impossible to countenance hearing. The suffering outside the play, in extremely recent South African history, made itself felt in audience’s – or potential audiences’ – attempts to impose silence on anything that suggested its expression.

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Michael Fentiman’s Titus Andronicus. RSC, 2013

For Michael Boyd’s productions of the history plays, a piece of tinned pear was used as a cut-out tongue for Henry VI, which is almost contemporary with Titus. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian offered articles that leant heavily on the insights of Sandra Smith, the RSC’s head of wigs and makeup; both articles – and remember, these are newspapers coming from quite opposed political stances – were fascinated by Smith’s accounts of how the blood of the play – and especially, the details of Lavinia’s gory tonguelessness – were created behind the scenes. The Telegraph piece explains:

“Smith’s Tupperware boxes contain three different consistencies for application to the skin: the gloopiest is thickened with cellulose from a high street chemist; the darkest is tinted with treacle. Another box contains blood balls the size of large grapes held together with cling film. Reynolds stores one in her mouth to pop when her tongue is cut out. “Don’t worry, it tastes like toffee apples,” says Smith.”

The language is pointedly gustatory, relating the blood to ‘treacle’ and to ‘grapes’ long before Smith is quoted to tell us that the actual liquid tastes ‘like toffee apples’. There’s a cosy domesticity to the description too – the blood is in ‘tupperware’; the products used to doctor it up are from ‘a high street chemist’; the wrap is ordinary ‘cling film’. It is as if we are at a cosy picnic. Later in the article we’re told, with seeming precision, Smith’s views on props for the gruesome scenes:

Only foodstuffs will cut it for body parts: chicken fillets for tongues, tinned pears for penises, lychees for eyeballs. “Anything else will roll or bounce… the sound effects are important, too.

Yet, much as we pretend, the issue is not mimesis, but the reassuring effect of being told mimesis is attempted. For there’s something more to this – the Guardian article makes the tongue, the organ of speech, ‘palatable’ in its absence. It diverts our attention from the violation that is – in left-wing terms – an epistemic violation enacted on an oppressed subject, a woman. The Telegraph, whose view is traditionally more right-wing, extends its attempt to sweeten the pill of this violence with focus on eyeballs and penises as well as tongues. The violation it concentrates upon is more generally bodily; less purely to do with speech and silence.

Rose Reynolds, playing Lavinia, used blackjacks – the sweets – to rapidly blacken the interior of the her mouth between scenes, so that she could appear convincingly orally mutilated. It’s a decision that’s ingenious in its quickness and cheapness – and disturbing if it’s funny, as this backstage edible evidence of mutilation echoes worryingly towards the cannibalistic pie – another edible evidence of mutilation – that Titus will serve to Tamora, forcing her to eat the minced bodies of her own murdered sons. This visual recreation of Lavinia’s silence substitutes blackness for absence, for lack of speech, in a way that is disturbing given the racial politics of the play.

But equally disturbing is the popularity of this detail with audiences.

Audiences do not simply suspend their disbelief – for Shakespeare, an anachronistic concept – they relate on multiple levels to imaginary character and to the actor behind. The fact that the actress sucked liquorice sweets to achieve the effect of a silenced, blackened mouth, is not mere side detail. It contextualises the disturbing way in which this play – and this performance – produces the effect of silence. Lavinia is mutilated; victimised, by mouth. Tamora, her opposite number, the villain to her innocent heroine, is, however, also a victim, and also victimised by mouth: she is forced, unknowingly, to eat the bodies of her own murdered children. The sweet food that creates the illusion of Lavinia’s enforced silence offers a disturbingly saccharine, palatable parallel to the gruesome minced meat Tamora must ingest.

The penultimate exchange of the play forces us to interrogate these responses. Lucius, son of the dead Titus, brother of murdered brothers and a raped sister, gives absolution to all the white male members of the cast. Tamora, he sentences to a shameful ending, but his most bitter venom is saved for Aaron, the black lover of Tamora:

LUCIUS: Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him;
There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies. This is our doom.
Some stay to see him fastened in the earth.

AARON
Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done.
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did
I do repent it from my very soul.                      (Titus, Act V, sc. Iii, 78-89)

Aaron’s rantings are – so the play text suggests – the ends of his speech; the last of his proto-Othelloesque fluency. But Doran and Sher, putting on the play in Johannesburg in 1995, refused this silencing. They allowed the final speech – unlike Aldridge, who rewrote the plot to save Aaron’s child – but they broke down a more disturbing expectation. The character who played Aaron, a black man, was not simply shuffled hurriedly offstage to prepare for the final few lines of climax. Bound, and sunk within a pit, he was positioned within the theatre foyer, ranting at uncomfortable audience members as they left. Hearing the actor make true the threat Shakespeare scripts for him – ‘why should wrath be mute and fury dumb’ – the largely white audiences of the production took refuge in uneasy silence, refusing to acknowledge what they saw.

These details should give us pause for thought. As these descriptions of palatable severed tongues and tasteful fake blood indicate, we are uncomfortable with gendered violence. We prefer to concentrate on stage effects, not the implications of those effects, just as Aldridge, the first black Othello, was required to normalise his biography into a romantic echo of Othello’s own history, to cover the narrative of an American black man with the more palatable story of an exotic African prince. So too, we romanticise. We focus on the novelty of details behind the stage (details of tinned pears and fake blood). In so doing, do we ignore the real violence, the real horror, behind the blood, the masks, and the stage props?

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Jesus Wept: On Umberto Eco and John Donne

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East Window, King’s College Cambridge

At 5.30 on Monday, I was sitting in King’s College Chapel, looking up at the stained glass, which – from where I was – was mostly shades of blue, with the afternoon light behind it. We were waiting for the beginning of a service, a service for Lent, on the theme of tears. As we waited, candles were lit, and by the time the choir began to sing, the fading light outside made the stained glass darken almost to black.

I was noticing these details, because I’d got there early. I was running over the passages from a sermon by John Donne, which I was going to read. Donne’s sermon is based on the text from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus responds to the death of Lazarus by weeping. All week, I’d been enjoying getting emails from the chaplain of King’s with the faintly blasphemous-sounding subject line Jesus Wept. But Donne takes a predictably serious approach, and he makes a characteristically perceptive point that, while the Bible describes God in terms of human body parts (hands and feet, eyes and ears) as well as human emotions:

“I do not remember that ever God is said to have wept. It is for man. And when God shall come to that last act in the glorifying of man, when he promises ‘to wipe all tears from his eyes’, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?”

I enjoyed this point, and this rhetoric, but while I was enjoying it, I was also figuring out how to negotiate one of those lines you can’t read without raising an irritated feminist eyebrow. Discussing the idea of Jesus weeping, Donne comments on contemporary attitudes towards tears:

“We call it a childish thing to weep, and a womanish; and perchance we mean worse in that than in the childish; for therein we mean falsehood to be mingled with weakness.”

Donne glides over the idea of duplicitous feminine tears so quickly you don’t have time to explore the implications of the claim, nor what it says about the visibility of emotion and the sincerity of feeling. Donne would not be the only writer to see tears as something that should be contained, repressed, controlled, kept within the limits of the body. But Dr Thomas Dixon – who’s a historian at Queen Mary – gave the fascinating and wide-ranging address during this service, and he pointed out that Donne was writing at a time of rapidly-shifting ideas about the acceptability of emotion, a time of post-Reformation perceptions of medieval emotional display as a form of excess or insincerity. Dixon also notes that Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears, and I admit that this surprised me.

I was thinking back to the conversation about another kind of emotion Christ may – or may not – have displayed, which is notoriously central to the plot of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Eco died this week, and I was reading obituaries and reviews of his books.

The Name of the Rose is a classic detective story, transplanted to the early fourteenth century, and told from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears young monk, Adso, and his preternaturally observant, cynical, and jaded mentor, the evocatively-named William of Baskerville. Both men are visitors to a monastery in which mysterious and gruesome events are occurring, in best murder mystery tradition. But if William of Baskerville is a composite of Sherlock Holmes and of the stagey trickery that created one of his most famous cases, he’s also a skilled theologian, and early on in the novel he and Adso become dragged into what seems to be an absurdly dry argument over whether or not Christ ever laughed.

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William and Adso in the Library. Still from The Name of the Rose (1986)

Looking over the comical and carnivalesque illuminations in a manuscript in the scriptorium, William is amused by scenes of abbot-monkeys and pope-foxes. Jorge of Burgos, an impeccably pious, irascible and deeply misogynistic scholar, declares that it is blasphemous to imagine that Christ – in full knowledge of human sin and sorrow – could ever have engaged in something as carnal and trivial as laughter. Amongst the thorns in his side is the charismatic dilettante and – whisper it – possibly not entirely heterosexual Berengar, the assistant librarian, who, it turns out, has been attempting to probe the hidden secrets of the monastery library. When William refers learnedly to Aristotle’s famous, lost treatise on Comedy, Jorge responds with rage, insisting that such a book could never have been written.

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The Pope as a fox. London, BL MS 10 E. IV, f. 49v (detail)

Their argument is, as you’ll see, based on real theological points of view. I’ll quote from the film script, since I enjoy imaging Sean Connery’s accent as William, and you can watch the scene here.

Jorge: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face, and makes men look like monkeys.

William: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man.

You can see that the outline of the debate is the same one that Donne presses into service in his discussion of Christ’s tears. While William (and Eco) describe laughter as particular to man, as opposed to animals, Donne describes tears as particular to man, as opposed to God. Together, they form a theory of emotion that determines the ordained place of humankind in the scheme of things. But gender doesn’t seem to come into it – at least, until I came across this old review of The Name of the Rose, written in 1983. It’s spiky praise, given grudgingly:

“Filled with the good-natured polyglot banter of the superfluosly learned, “The Name of the Rose” might be seen only as a effete “Canterbury Tales” except for tell-tale markings on the walls of its medieval monastic library, markings declaring that this records of those walls’ destruction is itself a labyrinth in the library’s image.”

It’s that word ‘effete’ that caught my attention. It’s a rarely-used term today: our vocabulary of habitual and ingrained misogyny is fashionably up to date. I have my suspicions about what the author might have considered ‘effete’ – from Eco’s choosing a genre usually dominated by women, to the portrayals of monastic homosexuality, to his poncey in-joke academic pastiches of language – but, as I was thinking about emotion, its containment and its display, it made me reassess a crucial scene in the novel, and the understated way it plays with gendered expectations.

As William and Adso become dragged further and further into the disturbing events of the monastery, they find themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders that seem somehow to relate to the highly secret portions of the monastery’s impressive and labyrinthine library. Racing through that library with suspicions mounting in their minds, William and Adso discover the  seemingly Stoical, dispassionate and authoritative Jorge, the monk who has spoken out so harshly against the idea of a laughing Christ, desperately cramming the poisoned pages of a book into his mouth in an act of destruction that will also kill him. It transpires that the fabled Aristotelian treatise on Comedy does indeed exist – hidden within the depths of the library – and that Jorge, having failed to suppress rumours of its existence, had daubed the pages in poison to trick any reader who licked his fingers as he leafed through the forbidden accounts of laughter.

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William and Adso confront Jorge. Still from The Name of the Rose

This frenzied activity is, to a medieval eye, not simply bizarre and desperate. It’s also gendered. In medieval religious literature, there’s a huge and long-standing tradition of imagining readers who devour their books. But – crucially – they are women. Religious writers approvingly described how holy women, from St Cecilia to the Virgin Mary herself, devoured the words of the Bible as if chewing, eating, and enjoying the sweet taste of the book; instructional works directed to women described how a female reader should feel and imagine each word in her mouth as she shaped its syllables with her lips. The root of this image is a quintessentially feminine experience, that of pregnancy: as Mary read the words of the Bible, she became aware of the angel Gabriel, come to tell her that she was to bear the Word of God.

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The Annunciation, attrib. Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1465-75 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

So, when Eco has an elderly male monk – a fanatic, opposed to laughter and display of emotion – cram the pages of a book into his mouth, he’s participating in this tradition of gendering the internalisation and the display of emotion. The eating of the book feminises Jorge, even as he attempts to destroy the evidence of Christ displaying an emotion that later writers would see as suspiciously human, even suspiciously feminine. But Eco also participates in a process of aligning the medieval – as represented by Jorge and his ilk, and challenged by the proto-Humanist and rational William – with the crazed repression of emotion, the distorted and dishonest response to religion, that post-Reformation writers would seize upon for polemical purposes, like Donne’s.

 

Wings, Hearts, and Medieval Lesbian Valentines

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Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r.

The other day, I saw this brilliant image come up in my twitter feed. The work of the delightfully titled ‘Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse‘, it shows two women engaged in the mutual attempt to entice a flock of winged hearts into their net with what looks like skipping rope. Naturally, I read it as a Valentine’s Day image. I blame my partner for this: just before, she’d shown me the Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. The de-centred heroine of the original story grows up as the daughter of the man who stole Maleficent’s wings and her heart, and when she returns the wings, she gains queenship of Maleficent’s kingdom. Like the original, this isn’t a story that is completely devoid of same-sex implications.

Charming as it is, I’ve got to admit that the medieval image isn’t a lesbian Valentine after all. In fact, it comes from the determinedly heterosexual Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) written by Pierre Scala and dedicated to his mistress. The British Library has a lovely and informative post on the real context of the image and of the manuscript in which it’s found, which formed their 2013 Valentine offering. In medieval English and French literature, stories of women who fall in love with other women are exceptionally rare – the Roman de Silence excluded – and I’ve been trying to find some for a while.

So I followed up my first thoughts about women trapping winged hearts. After all, the tropes of hunters catching birds, and of women as birds, are both pretty prevalent in medieval culture, and both often relate to debates on love. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls begins with the lovely regretful line (referring to love, but also to writing love poetry) “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne …” and goes on to describe, in the first ever ‘Valentine’ poem, the meetings in which the birds choose their mates on this day.

The bird-lover also features in one of Marie de France’s lais, the story of Yonec, which is traditionally read as a love story between the mysterious knight Muldumarec and the unhappy wife of the jealous lord of Caerwent, who has imprisoned her in a high tower. In Yonec, the trapped woman sees a dark hawk fly in through her window, and it transforms into a man who declares his love for her. Doubting his faith – and, indeed, whether he is truly human – the woman insists that he must take on her shape, and take the Eucharist in her place, which will prove whether or not he comes in good faith.

The hawk-man consents, takes on the woman’s form, and receives the Eucharist, and the validated couple hurry to bed. But, seeing his wife’s happiness, the jealous husband places spikes around the window, and when the hawk returns a second time, its wings are torn and it flees away bleeding, leaving the desolate woman to follow the trail of drops of blood out of her window and into a silver city, where she finds her lover lying bleeding on his deathbed. It’s a dream-like sequence, full of mysterious images and shape-shifting visions of the supernatural, which works hard to make us forget the cold logic of the real world.

But I wondered about the implications of that central test of truth. The Eucharist, we’re assured, reveals the ‘truth’ form of the lover: human, not bird; Christian, not supernatural demon or fairy. We’re primed by the shape of the narrative (and by heteronormative assumptions) to discount the fact that the lover is, at this moment in the story, in a third alternative form: that of a woman. If the Eucharist reveals the truth, then perhaps the hawk-lover’s true form is female. Following this up, I checked the text, and found that it’s not clear when this female form is given up: or even whether the lover retains it into the woman’s bedchamber. And it would perhaps be no surprise to a medieval audience to imagine a hawk-lover as female rather than male, for hawks are often associated with women in love. In Yonec, then, a disguise of hawk-wings hides a story of women in love, as well as the identity of the ‘knight’ who flies in through the window. I think it’s a good story for Valentine’s day.

 

 

 

 

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.

heron

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.

 

 

 

Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself:

” … [the women] weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. …In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again.”

This sudden twisting of the beautiful into the violent is shockingly effective, and I love how her writing creates its own mimetic memorial, structuring itself into an object of beauty looped around the idea of women’s absence from historical monuments, just like the lacework it describes. But her mimesis approach made me think about how language, itself functions as a memorial, and the way that idea is gendered.

It’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this term. I’m working on trauma and memory, and my students – who’ve finished their medieval dissertations – have been preparing to sit their final exam, the Tragedy paper. Yet, tragedy, in the Western literary tradition, is very often an extended exploration of men doing unspeakably awful things to women, and authors constructing something beautiful and memorable out of these actions. It poses an ethical real problem: how do you ask women to study 2000-plus years of literature which is, amongst other things, interested in violence against women as an aesthetic process?

First I thought about women’s speech. A friend of mine recently wrote this piece, titled ‘Why Women Talk Less’, about the dynamics of male/female speech within mixed gender groups. It has a huge amount of research behind it, and for me, the stand-out point is that the problem isn’t women failing to speak; the often-proposed solution – that women should be more assertive, more forceful – simply doesn’t work. Women who attempt that approach are penalised for it, perceived as rude interrupters (a perception I notice a lot when teaching medieval woman writers). Women are expected to spend time, and words, validating male peers, and this reinforces male authority to speak up.

We can see this throughout history. We tend to see women’s speech, and women’s writing, as insubstantial, provisional, lacking the weight and authority of men’s words. Writing in the first century BC, Catullus declares that the words of a woman in love are so fluid, so fleetingly true, ‘in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua’: they should be written in the wind, on the rushing water’. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the only woman whose words have any power is the Sibyl of Cumae, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, her body racked with pain as he forces her to speak not her own words, but his. Yet she also figures the fragility of women’s speech, for she scribbles her messages on fluttering leaves, which are blown into disorder by the wind. Her legend links her raving and her ineffectual attempts to communicate to her physical imprisonment in an ageing female body: coerced to give up her virginity to the god Apollo, she bargained for as many years of life as the grains of sand in her hourglass, and so lives on in painfully protracted old age, shrunken to tiny size:

‘For I saw the Sibyl of Cumae with my own eyes, hanging in a little jar, and when the boys asked her: “Sibyl, what would you do?” she replied “I would die.”‘ 

These powerful tropes of ephemeral, disordered female speech lie behind a more violent tradition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid imagines women deprived of their human voices through literal, oral violation. I wrote a while ago, following on from comments by other scholars, about the way in which women’s speech is marked in medieval literature as the speech of the Other, as birdspeech. The paradigmatic example of this Ovid’s story of Philomela, raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. Her tongue cut out, Philomela is forced to weave her story in order to communicate with her sister, and once this is done the two take gruesome revenge by killing and serving the body of Tereus (and Procne’s) son Itys to his unsuspecting father. Philomela’s communication becomes – of necessity – another looping-together of words around an absence: the physical mutilation, the loss of her tongue, driving her back to that seemingly decorative ‘woman’s work’ Ditum describes. 

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail).

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

As Tereus pursues the two women in murderous fury, they are miraculously transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow, forced to cry out the swallow’s song of ‘Itys, Itys’ in echo of her dead son’s name. The sound telescopes her grief to a single word, reducing it to birdsong, and it echoes backwards and forwards in literature to other women, losing its specificity of reference: Aeschylus’ Cassandra, doomed never to be believed, cries out with the same bird-like sounds, ‘like swallows, in some barbarian language’, ‘a tuneless song … Itys! Itys!’; Pound’s Canto 4 places the same horrified cry into the mouth of the medieval Frenchwoman, fed the heart of her lover Cabestan, as she throws herself to her death:

Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!
And she went toward the the window and cast her down,
All the while, the while, swallows crying:
Ityn!
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”
“Is it Cabestan’s heart in the dish?

… the swallows crying:
‘Tis. ‘Tis. Ytis!”

These echoes empty out the significance even of women’s bird-like mutilated speech, reducing it to a shared effect of sound, as if all women’s voices blur into one unintelligible twittering. Eliot, incorporating the story of Philomel into The Wasteland, reduces this song further. Responding to Ovid in the sixteenth century, writers claimed that the soft ‘tereu, tereu’ sound of the nightingale represents Philomel’s crying after her rapist; they also hear the word ‘fie’, and, inexplicably (but accurately representing the birdsong), ‘jug, jug’. Eliot’s Philomel once sings ‘Tereu’ but her speech is dominated by the jarringly incomprehensible: ‘twit twit twit/ jug jug jug jug jug jug’.

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Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

The contrast between these evocations of women’s empty speech, and men’s depictions of their own words, is striking. Male writers and speakers aspire to permanence for their words, and with their words they construct memorials cemented in stone and engraved in metal. Horace, writing between Catullus and Ovid, offers this image:

“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze
Higher than the royal structure of the pyramids
… I shall not wholly die, and a greater part of me
Will escape Lady Death.”

(Exegi monumentum aere perennius/ reglalique situ pyramidum altius … Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei/ vitabit Libitinam).

For Horace, words – the words that for women are ‘wind-written’ and fleeting, twittering and muted, looped beautifully around absence –  are paradoxically concrete and lasting. And, whereas the repetition of the words attributed to women create an echo-chamber of twittering confusions, we find later writers build on Horace’s image as if it were the solid structure it describes. Chaucer’s House of Fame pays tribute to Virgil’s Aeneid by picturing it, engraved on a tablet of brass; Shakespeare adapts it into his sonnets. But this image of permanence – of the memorialising quality of words – also stands behind violent displays of eloquence in which masculine memorialisation acts upon voiceless women. So, Othello muses:

I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

His words construct a memorial for Desdemona in the Horatian tradition, an aesthetic object that takes on the function of the marble statue it describes. There is something psychopathically disturbing about the way Othello slips, so readily, from the act of smothering his wife to the glibly eloquent image of a funeral memorial, as if to elide the intervening death and his own part in it. The violence of this memorial image is something in which Shakespeare becomes complicit, because he participates in the process Horace describes – making a memorial, an aesthetic object, out of words – but uses as his raw material, his sculpting block or tablet – the image of Desdemona’s dying body.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

This unsettling linguistic memorialising becomes grotesque when it is brought into contact with the tradition of treating women’s words as muted and mutilated language, as in Titus AndronicusTitus is an incredibly violent play – the plot revolves around acts of murder (or human sacrifice), counter-acts of revenge, the threat of forced marriage and the horror of rape. Its rape subplot is based, explicitly, on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and where the tongueless Philomela weaves a tapestry to tell her story, in Shakespeare’s version, the rapists tauntingly anticipate this possibility, and cut off not only Lavinia’s tongue, but also her hands:

Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.

Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

It is in this state that Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, finds her. Like the mutilated statue of the goddess at the top of this post, she wants to speak but her body stands poised in a frozen space, mouthless and armless, unable to speak or communicate. This moment is one of the much-discussed scenes of Shakespeare’s work, for, as Lavinia stands bleeding, Marcus launches into a speech whose length and self-conscious rhetorical eloquence seem jarringly out of place. His attempt to find beauty in the horrific image, to construct an aesthetic object out of his own emotional response, echoes Othello’s memorialising self-justification, yet agonisingly prolongs the display of Lavinia’s unanswered suffering. Her pain becomes, as we listen, somehow unreal; her bleeding seems fake, because quite obviously she would have died of blood loss had the wounds been genuine. The words memorialise Lavinia at the expense of making her pain, and her humanity, seem unreal.

This speech prepares for Titus’ own response to his daughter’s violation, which bursts out of him when he discovers – as she manages to trace out a message in the sand, holding a stick between the stumps of her hands – who her rapists are. Echoing Horace, he vows:

I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands, like Sibyl’s leaves, abroad,
And where’s your lesson, then?

I can’t help reading Titus’ image of engraving words in brass as a violent one, the words cut sharply into the surface of the metal, penetrating its surface in a disturbingly pseudo-sexual way (I’ve written about the history of writing as penetration before). As with Othello, the act of memorialisation is also – although inadvertently – an act of silencing, as Titus vows to ‘lay it by’ once he has recorded the story: to preserve it, but, also, to set it aside, a memorial, but an unread memorial. In proximity to the image of Sibyl’s leaves, too, the image of scattered sand carries a submerged reminder of the coercive sex that reduced the Sibyl to a woman trapped in a failing, constraining body, wishing for death. The lines insert a masculine, permanent, solid written text over the already-scattering feminine words, and over Lavinia’s enforced muteness, speaking for her but also speaking over her.

The horror of the tragedies comes from their attempt to make beautiful – and then to make permanent – the suffering of the women they depict. But their power also comes from the long histories of conceptualising male and female speech in different ways, of imagining men’s words as permanent, inscribed, gouged upon the memory while women’s words are scattered, muted, mutilated birdspeech, a series of echoes looped around silences. If we see literature as a long conversation, stretching forward from Horace and Ovid to Shakespeare and onwards, we can interpret the repeated processes of citation and adaptation as something akin to the validation of men’s voices we see in conversations.

So what does reading tragedy – or reading literary history – achieve, especially for women literary critics? How does it relate back to that dynamic of the silencing of women, which exists outside literature, in debates between men and women?

Running a commentary around these words – knitting them up into a new pattern – feels substantial to me. Commentaries are seen as reactive work, not original work, but, like Ditum’s lace-making, they create something much more than the sum of their parts. In the context of female absences and silences, building this structure – writing this piece – feels productive, a way of relating to these texts and responding to these tropes, without replicating them. By analysing the imagery of male speech as solid, concrete and authoritative, we can deconstruct it, unpick it, turn it into the sort of text that can be unravelled and understood. Writing this, I had at the back of my mind a question about women studying tragedy: should we do it, or is it unfair to expect women to immerse themselves in literature that is so filled with violently silencing images of women? I think writing can function as a form of memorialising of that problem, a mode of ‘speaking up’ for women that fills in their silences without speaking over them.

Note on Copyright

Delicious Rottenness: Women, Sex, and Apples

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I promised Jenni Nuttall I’d write this post some time ago, when I first mentioned I was going to be teaching Chaucer’s apocrypha, including the rather nice poem titled ‘O Mosy Quince‘, which begins like this:

O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake.
I am ryght sory, masteras, for your sake,
Ye seme a thyng that all men have forgotyn;
Ye be so rype ye wex almost rotyn.

Most people read this kind of poem as a parody of the traditional love lyric, in which the charms of a beautiful woman are praised. The editor of this particular poem compares it to Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 130, beginning ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. And I can see that here. The poet is joking around: he’s claiming the woman remains on the tree, unplucked (yes, we got the pun), because she is too forbidding for men to dare to pick. Yet, at the same time, they have almost forgotten her, and while she seems to scare men away, she is also an object of pity. As the poet goes on, he revels in his insults, calling this woman ‘bawsyn-buttockyd’ (badger-arsed) and ‘belyed lyke a tonne’ (bellied like a cask of beer). Yet, by the end of the poem, he grudgingly acknowledges his limited affections, in the space of a single stanza declaring and retracting and re-declaring his love. ‘My lovely lewde masterasse, take consideracion,/ I am so sorowfull there as ye be absent’ he admits, then qualifies ‘To love yow but a lytyll is myne entent’ before ending in seeming exasperation: ‘Of all wemen I love yow best. A thowsand tymes fy!’

I hadn’t been thinking about this recently, until I saw Jem Bloomfield’s post, on a more modern version of the same idea, which I think you’ll agree is rather lacking in the charm of the medieval poem.

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The modern meme simply ‘comforts’ single women by comparing them to apples high on the tree, which are more appealing than the ‘easy’ pickings of rotten fruit lower down. As he points out, in the modern meme, it’s assumed that men will happily consume ‘rotten’ fruit despite its seemingly unpalatable condition. This is, actually, quite an odd image. But it wasn’t until someone queried this in the comments that I started to think about it again, and it helped me clarify what I think about the medieval poem, too.

As an image, the apple tree is groaning under the weight of accumulated connotations: aside from Eve’s sinful apple picking and its suggestive associations with (sexual) shame, there’s an tree in Piers Plowman, supported by staves to hold up its branches, whose fruits cry out almost in human voices when Piers tries to pick them, and which the devil tries to steal. It’s this scene that C.S. Lewis would plagiarise (delightfully) for The Magician’s Nephew. There are innumerable malus/malum (Latin for evil; Latin for apple) puns in medieval literature. Where does the rottenness come in?

The pseudo-Chaucerian poem pictures a woman as a quince – a fruit which doesn’t actually need to be rotten before it’s ripe, but which is certainly hard and inedible in its normal raw state. It is often thought to be the actual apple of the garden of Eden. It’s closely related to another fruit, the medlar, which genuinely does get eaten when it’s been ‘bletted’ or rotted. It looks like this:
220px-Medlar_pomes_and_leaves

In medieval England, the fruit has another, ruder name, which Chaucer (real Chaucer this time) does use: it’s known, for its distinctive shape, as an ‘open arse’. In the prologue to the Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer writes:

“This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is mowled also as myne heris —
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers.

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype…”

These lines constitute the Reeve’s angry retort to the Miller’s raunchy tale of Alisoun and Nicholas, the young lovers who trick both Alisoun’s elderly husband and her would-be lover Absolon. The Reeve, as a carpenter by profession like the cuckolded husband in the story, takes personal offence.As you may recall, in the Miller’s tale, the suitor Absolon is tricked, in the dark, into kissing Alison’s arse instead of her face as she presents it at her chamber window, and, returning in rage with a hot poker, he mistakenly jabs it in Nicholas’s rear end as that young man sticks his bum out of the window to fart. The central image the Reeve uses here belies his attempts to pretend to be aloof from the Miller’s crude sexual interests.

It’s presumably this line that the later pseudo-Chaucerian poet was thinking of, when he compared his mistress to a fruit ‘so rype’ it is ‘almost roten’. But, in her appearance, the woman of the Quince poem seems more similar to another of Chaucer’s pilgrims. As the poem goes on, we find the mistress is ‘belyed lyke a tonne’; Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath similarly has ‘hipes large’. Both have complexions that deviate from the typical ivory paleness of the beautiful medieval woman: the Wife of Bath’s face is ‘reed of hue’; the mistress cheeks are ‘lyke a melow costard’. Crucially, though, the Wife is quick to institute her own standards of female beauty. Instead of conforming to the medieval preference for pale-skinned, slender, blonde women, she asserts confidently: ‘I was gat-toothed, and that bicame me wel’ (‘that suited me well’).

I don’t want to suggest that there’s too much of a feminist nature going on here, but despite that, I find this statement – and the lady of the Quince poem – much more appealing as descriptions of women than the modern meme. Yes, all of these poems are male-voiced, describing women as objects, and even the outspoken Wife of Bath is only able to say what her creator, Chaucer, puts into her mouth. Yes, these writers are working in a tradition (both poetic, and social) in which women’s beauty is a commodity, in which female sexuality is a consumer good. But they’re nothing like as misogynistic as the modern meme, because – unlike the modern meme – they give the impression that the speakers do, in fact, like both women, and words.

The modern meme’s main nastiness, in my view, lies in the fact that – as Jem’s blog shows – we can’t imagine why men would want to eat the ‘rotten apples’, the ‘easy’ women. The image of sexy women as rotten fruit doesn’t quite fit in this puritanical, sin-of-Eve ideology. It’s been grafted in from the older tradition, but pruned of all its enjoyably deviant, sensual connotations. Instead, we’re left with the underlying message that men don’t really like the women very much at all.

I nicked my title from D. H. Lawrence, who revisits the pseudo-Chaucerian image, and makes it much more explicitly sexual (though less gendered) in ‘Medlars and Sorb Apples‘. I’ll leave you with some lines from that:

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins,
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
In the medlar, in the sorb-apple,
Wineskins of brown morbidity,
Autumnal excrementa;
What is it that reminds us of white gods?

Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.

A kiss, and a vivid spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying, frost-cold leaves.

Too Much Passion: Women, the Crucifixion, and Displays of Emotion

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

I thought I’d start with this image – a triptych probably painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-fifteenth century – because I find it both compelling, and, frankly, creepy. The central panel is full of van der Weyden’s signature images of heightened emotion: bodies arching and sagging with loss, faces contorted. But at the right-hand side, a little further from the dying Christ, stand onlookers whose stance appears more matter-of-fact: gesturing to one another, they might be engaged in devout contemplation (as the clasped hands indicate), but they also look as if they’re in the middle of considering the practicalities of getting Christ’s body down with that ladder. Even more disorientingly, in the left-hand panel kneels the patron, gazing impassively at the scene before him, as if looking through a window in a sunlit colonnade. With neatly tucked-in legs and politely clasped fingers in his lap, he displays a disturbing lack of emotional response … which is surprisingly effective in prompting a stronger response from us viewers.

I’ve been thinking about the way emotion is displayed or hidden in medieval literature a lot recently, and so this image made me think of how we’re invited to relate to medieval portrayals of emotion, how they manipulate us to feel and think. The central focus of the triptych is not really Christ – who looks almost peaceful in death – but his mother, whose emotional outburst provokes a swirl of motion around her. In contrast, the male viewer – the figure who acts as a bridge between us, onlookers from outside the painting, and the main scene – reveals nothing of his inner response.

This quality of hidden or restrained emotion runs through a lot of medieval lyrics on the same topic. This morning, I balked at the queue winding out around the quad at King’s College (sorry!), and, so I hear, missed a lovely service. But, instead, I saw Dr Kate Ash sharing one of the Middle English Passion lyrics, and it worked its way into the lecture I’m currently writing. So, I thought I would include it here, too.

“Nou goth sonne under wod;
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre;
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.”

(Now the sun goes beneath the woods;
I pity, Mary, your beautiful face.
Now the sun goes beneath the trees;
I pity, Mary, your son and you.)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (The Queen Mary Psalter)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (detail). The Queen Mary Psalter.

This lyric always reminds me of John Donne’s ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ in its sense of the motion of the heavens and the emotions of the human heart. I first came across the Donne poem in Sinéad Garrigan-Mattar’s classes ten years ago, and I love it. The medieval lyric, however, is much shorter, and the plangent tension between the beautiful image of the setting sun and the shocking disruption of Christ’s death only gestures towards the internal conflict Donne explores more fully.

The lyric is perfectly balanced, almost tranquil, in its repetitive economy of words. Yet, beneath the surface, its language is pulled in opposite directions by a series of puns. I can’t capture the precise depth of connotations ‘reweth’ carries in Middle English: it denotes not just pity, but also regret and pain, almost an admission of human guilt, which lingers underneath a series of puns set up through the lyric. The ‘tre’ is the tree of the Cross on which Christ sinks into death, as well as the woodland behind which the sun sets. The ‘sonne’ that sinks beneath the horizon is both a natural phenomenon, a beautiful image, and a ‘son’ whose death causes the world to shake and which (so medieval legend had it) temporarily blotted out the sun. Even the word ‘rode’, which refers to Mary’s tearful face, can also mean ‘cross’.

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

The tensions of this lyric are focussed, not on Christ – who is all-but-absent from the poem, glancingly evoked in the sun/son play on words – but on his mother, Mary. And it’s her ‘faire rode’ that is the most disturbing image of the poem: are we to imagine her face as ‘beautiful’ in its sorrow? Is the cross itself – an instrument of torture – in any way beautiful? Incorporating these problems, the lyric draws attention to the startling disjunction between its own beautifully crafted form, and the appalling sorrow of its subject-matter.

Like the triptych, the lyric shocks us into feeling the emotion it displays, by making us consider the aestheticization of grief and pain. Yet, at the same time, both forms concentrate the sense of excess – the overwhelming grief of Mary in the triptych, the excessive layering of double meanings in the lyric – in the body and face of a female figure, subtly undermining that gendered performance of emotion.