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

 

tumblr_mvcd7y3y3j1soj7s4o1_r1_1280

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50743-40311

RIP

The Window

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

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

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

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

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love…

Gentle this soul

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Horcrux Theory of Chaucerian Manuscript Transmission

download

Adam Scriveyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syllabus Sharing – Freebie Reading Lists for Langland, Chaucer and Romance

This post is precisely what it says on the tin. When I prepare my reading lists, I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s syllabuses and other people’s discussions of pedagogy (especially those by Liz Gloyn, who blogs here, Rachel Moss, who blogs here, Jane-Heloise Nancarrow, here, and Carissa Harris, whose blog I’m eagerly awaiting). I’ve always – lazily? – crowd-sourced support and tips.

I find it hugely useful when people take the trouble to put details – reading lists, in particular – online. It also seems to me that these lists might give students, especially undergrads thinking about postgraduate work, some ideas about fun things to read. In that spirit, here are my reading lists for my MPhil teaching for next term, complete with some (speculative) annotations about what I’m doing and why.

MPhil in Medieval Literature

I’m teaching one component of this course, which is taught in three seminars of 90 minutes each. The idea is that students discuss texts – and theory – that they’ve read before, and over the course of a term (with six seminars in total delivered by two academics) they write an extended essay. They also attend classes in palaeography and codicology, which are assessed by written exercise, and, throughout the course of the whole nine months, they write a dissertation.

When I’ve taught this course previously (in 2015 and 2016), I’ve used a running theme of ‘community’ to draw my texts together, and I’ve encouraged students to look at manuscripts in the University Library that include the texts we’re studying. In each seminar, I’ve brought in short extracts from historical and theoretical texts, to contextualise the literary material – this reflects my training at the University of York, which was quite heavily historical and theoretical, and my training during my PhD, which was broadly based in book history. Although those are my interests, Cambridge has a big tradition of doing close reading, and this is one of my favourite methodologies, so we also do a fair bit of that in class. I’ve been reasonably happy about the way the course has run, but this year I’ve been rewriting the syllabus to include more theory and (I hope) to give students more choice of different approaches.

Week 1: Space, Place, Community: Langland in London

I’m fascinated by the way Langland imagines communities, and maps them onto all sorts of spaces – real, imaginary, allegorical, architectural, somatic, arboreal … the list goes on. But I also think the manuscript history of Piers Plowman is a good way in to thinking about networks of production and transmission. The theory I’d want to look at this week is what I think of as ‘heavy’ theory – it is philosophical as much as it is literary or cultural – but I think it matches up very well with Langland’s own tendency to play games with epistemology.

I include some quite old scholarship – notably, Carruthers’ Search for St Truth – partly because I love it, and partly because I want students to be able to think about changes over time. I’m also including studies that don’t relate directly to Langland, to model the way we use secondary scholarship for its methodology or its insights into the heavy theory, and not just for its direct comments on a primary text. Personally, I’m thinking about these issues in the context of the recent ‘Women at Sea‘ conference, which used the space of the academic discussion to host works of creative writing. But I don’t yet know whether or not students will agree, or whether they’ll see something entirely different.

Primary:

Langland, William, Piers Plowman : A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text, ed. and D. Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008)

or

Langland, William, The Vision of Piers Plowman ; a Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Everyman, 1995)

or

Langland, William, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Longman, 1995)

Secondary:

The journal devoted to Langland studies is the Yearbook of Langland Studies.

McAvoy, Liz Herbert, ed., Rhetoric of the Anchorhold: Space, Place and Body within the Discourses of Enclosure (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008)

Benson, C. David, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture (University Park, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)

Carruthers, Mary, The Search for St Truth. A Study of Meaning in Piers Plowman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)

Cassidy-Welch, Megan, ‘Medieval Practices of Space and Place’, Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27:2 (2010), 1-12.

Cole, Andrew, and Andrew Galloway, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Foucault, Michel [1967]) ‘Of other spaces’, trans. Lotus, in N. Leach (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, London: Routledge, 1997), 330-336

or

Foucault, Michel, [1967] ‘Different Spaces’, trans. R. Hurley, in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault Volume 2, ed. J. D. Faubion (London: Penguin, 1998), 175-185.

or

Foucault, Michel, [1967] ‘Of other spaces,’ trans. M. Dehaene and L. De Cauter, (eds.), Heterotopia and the City, eds. Dehaene and Cauter (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 13-30.

Goldberg, Jeremy, ‘John Rykener, Richard II, and the Governance of London,’ Leeds Studies in English NS XLV (2014): 49-70 (51).

Hanna, Ralph, London Literature, 1300-1380 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Horobin, Simon, ‘Harley 3954 and the audience of Piers Plowman,’ in Medieval Texts in Context, eds. Graham D. Caie and Denis Renevey (London: Routledge, 2008), 68-84.

Justice, Steven, Writing and Rebellion : England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Justice, Steven, and Katherine Kerby-Fulton, eds., Written Work: Langland, Labor and Authorship (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, and Denise L. Despres, Iconography and the Professional Reader. The Politics of Book Production in the Douce Piers Plowman. Medieval Cultures Vol. 15 (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

Lefevbre, Henri, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

Lindenbaum, Sheila, ‘London Texts and Literate Practice,’ in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), pp. 284-312.

Mooney, Linne R., and Estelle Stubbs, Scribes and the City: London Guildhall Clerks and the Dissemination of Middle English Literature (York: Medieval Press, 2013)

Scase, Wendy (ed.), Essays in Manuscript Geography. Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007)

Steiner, Emily, Reading Piers Plowman (Cambridge: University Press, 2013)

Warner, Lawrence, The Myth of Piers Plowman. Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive (Cambridge: CUP, 2014)

Whitehead, Christiania, Castles of the Mind: A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory

Zeeman, Nicolette, Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Queer Communities in Medieval Romance

Some of the secondary reading for the previous week has times (thematic or theoretical) with queer theory, but this week’s focus is more explicit. I’m quite ambivalent about Queer Theory, so I’m interested to see what students make of it – and whether they think there’s a distinction to be made between texts that depict same-sex desire and/or gender nonconformity, and texts that are queer? Frankly, I also think these romances are a lot of fun, so they should be nice to read and teach.

Primary:

Le Roman de Silence. A thirteenth-century Arthurian verse-romance by Heldris de Cornuälle, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, W. Heffer, 1972)

or

Silence: A Thirteenth-century French Romance. A facing page translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, MI: Michegan State University Press, 1992).

The Squire of Low Degree, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/kooper-sentimental-humorous-romances

Sir Degrevant, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/kooper-sentimental-and-humorous-romances-sir-degrevant

Secondary:

Arthuriana 7.1 (1997) and 12.1 (2002) are special issues devoted to studies of the Roman de Silence.

Ashe, Laura, Ivana Djordjević and Judith Weiss (eds), The Exploitations of Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010)

Burns, E. Jane, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)

Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004)

Callahan, Christopher, ‘Canon Law, Primogeniture, and the Marriage of Ebain and Silence,’ Romance Quarterly 49:1 (2002): 12-20.

Clark, Robert A., ‘Queering Gender, Naturalising Class in the Roman de Silence,’ Arthuriana 12: 1 (2002): 50-63.

Cooper, Helen, The English Romance in Time. Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the death of Shakespeare (Oxford: University Press, 2004)

Diamond, Arlyn, ‘Sir Degrevant: What Lovers Want,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England. Essays in Popular Romance, edited by Nicola McDonald (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), 82-101.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012)

Doyle, Kara, ‘Thisbe Out Of Context: Chaucer’s Female Readers and the Findern Manuscript.’ Chaucer Review 40 (2006): 231-261.

Edwards, A. S. G., ‘Gender, Order and Reconciliation in Sir Degrevant,’ in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1994): 53-64.

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer and Diane Watt (eds), The Lesbian Premodern, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Hanna, Ralph, and Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘The History of a Family Collection.’ In The Wollaton Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers, edited by Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2010), 3-19.

Heng, Geraldine, Empire of Magic. Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2003)

Karras, Ruth Mazo, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto others, 2nd edn (London and New York: Routledge, 2012)

Lees, Clare E. (ed.), Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994)

Lochrie, Karma, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)

Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz (eds), Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

McDonald, N. F., ‘Desire out of Order and Undo Your Door,’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 247-275

McNamer, Sarah, ‘Female Authors, Provincial Settings: The Re-versing of Courtly Love in the Findern Manuscript,’ Viator 22 (1991): 279-310

Pugh, Tison, Sexuality and its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

Putter, Ad, and Jane Gilbert (eds), The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance London: Pearson Education, 2000)

Saunders, Corinne J., ed., A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004)

Terrell, Katherine H., ‘Competing gender ideologies and the limitations of language in Le Roman de Silence,’ Romance Quarterly 55: 1 (2008): 35-48

Silenced Communities: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Canterbury Tales

 This week will be the last seminar of term, so I wanted to bring together some canonical primary material with a broad range of secondary material, some of which is quite explicitly polemical. I’m interested to see how this week runs. I’ve taught explicitly violent material (and sexually violent material) quite a lot over the past two years. I’m aware (obviously) of all the controversies over trigger warnings and content notes and the ethics of teaching these texts, but I’m pretty committed to teaching them, and I do see it as a form of feminist work to teach them. My experience is that students feel the same way.

I really wanted to give students some second wave feminist material – despite (or because of?) the fact that it can be difficult. For example, as someone commented when I suggested her work, Brownmiller’s views on race might take some criticism. But I think it’s especially important to read second wave feminism in the current climate, because it’s so easy to dismiss (without reading) female scholars as ‘dated’ or ‘bigoted’ – rather than reading them as people who had huge insights that moved the conversation on.

Primary

For this seminar I would like you to read The Legend of Good Women and any of the Canterbury Tales you wish to choose – but the Merchant’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and/or the Reeve’s Tale, are recommended.

The Legend of Good Women and The Canterbury Tales from The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford, 1987)

Secondary:

Alcoff, Linda, and Laura Gray, ‘Survivor Discourse: Transgression or Recuperation?,’ Signs 18: 2 (1993): 260-290.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power, edited and introduced by John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991)

Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975) 

Cannon, Christopher, ‘Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer,’Speculum 68 (1993): 74-94

Carruthers, Mary, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,’ PMLA 94:2 (1979): 209-222

Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1:4 (1976): 875-93

Collette, Carolyn P., Rethinking Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (York: Medieval Press, 2014)

Delany, Sheila, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Desmond, Marilynn, Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)

Dinshaw, Carolyn, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989)

Edwards, Suzanne M., The Afterlives of Rape in Medieval English Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2016)

Evans, Ruth, and Lesley Johnson (eds), Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect (London: Routledge, 1994)

Frank, Robert Worth, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972)

Galloway, Andrew, ‘Chaucer’s Legend of Lucrece and the Critique of Ideology in Fourteenth-Century England,’ ELH 60:4 (1993): 813-832

Gavey, Nicola, Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, 1992)

Harris, Carissa, ‘Inserting “a grete tente, a thrifty, and a long”: Sexual Obscenity and Scribal Innovation in Fifteenth-Century Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales,’ Essays in Medieval Studies 28 (2012): 1-16.

Klindienst, Patricia, ‘The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours,’ in Rape and Representation, eds. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda A. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 35-64.

Mardorossian, Carine M., ‘Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape,’ Signs 27:3 (2007): 743-75.

McDonald, N. F., ‘Chaucer’s “Legend of good women,” Ladies at Court and the Female Reader,’ The Chaucer Review35: 1 (2001) 22-42.

Niebrzydowski, Sue, “‘So wel koude he me glose’: The Wife of Bath and the Eroticism of Touch,” in The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain, eds. Amanda Hopkins and Cory James Rushton (Cambridge, Eng., 2007), pp. 18-26.

Robertson, Elizabeth, and Christine M. Rose, eds., Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2001)

Saunders, Corinne, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001)

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak,’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988)

and/or

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘History,’ in A History of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 198-311. Includes a revised version of the previous essay.

Strauss, Barrie Ruth, ‘The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse and the Imprisonment of Criticism,’ ELH 55:3 (1988): 527-54.

Please feel free to nick any or all of these reading lists! Or to let me know if you’d do something different/recommend some more reading. 

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

 

Titus_Andronicus_Lavinia_Hitomi_Manaka_Yukio_Ninagawa_production_2006.jpg

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.

914c0943c28f7debb61ec9353bb4d5fd

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.

download

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)

titus

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.

3696

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?

A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail

506-6_large

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!

64a2ccd6648736b2849b938bd9f426bd

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.

506-6_large

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.

Safe Space and the University (Trigger Warning)

I’m turning over a lot of thoughts about safe spaces and triggers at the moment.

Next year, I’m going to go into a lecture hall, hopefully with about 50-70 undergraduates, and I’m going to talk to them about how a brutal rape becomes funny, and then, about how men use it as an excuse to act out violent homoerotic fantasies. I’m going to talk about how the rapist – like most rapists in this context – is an immigrant, a foreigner. Many of his co-rapists are black. They are all monstrous, probably by nature. But then, most women are natural liars, with no sense of loyalty. Even supposedly impartial observers are so disgusted with them (or so bored?) they’ll write whole accounts of this brutal rape narrative, without ever mentioning the word rape.

Well, ok. You know, if you’re reading this, that I’m talking about a fictional narrative, and a fictional narrative written over 500 years ago (though that ‘impartial observer’ I’m thinking of is a scholar, who deserves a ‘WTF were you thinking’ for his article on the Alliterative Morte). You probably know, if you read this blog regularly, that I won’t go into the lecture hall and say it all just as I’ve written it here. I will explain context; I will talk to my students about how insidiously damaging this narrative is, how it still influences us, how it lies to us. I will name the problems: I will call it misogynistic and racist. But, it will still upset a lot of those students.

I know that, statistically, in that class of 50-70 students, some will be survivors of rape or sexual assault. Some will be students of ethnic minorities. Well over half will be women. That lecture hall will not be a ‘safe space’ for them to learn about literature in. It’s really difficult to know what to do about that. Do I give these lectures – which I firmly believe are good literary criticism, and provide us with good tools to be wise to the ways in which literature perpetuates racism and misogyny? Or do I avoid saying anything that will have these students shrinking inside, and feeling personally exposed, and upset?

The context of this question is this letter, which I’ve signed, and which went out in the Observer today. The gist of it is that, at the moment, there’s a big debate about what ‘safe space’ should mean in a university. Should speakers who may be controversial – or worse, who may say profoundly upsetting things – be allowed to speak? Should students feel duty-bound to protest?

I want to be clear: this is not, for me, about ‘censorship’. That letter only mentions the word ‘censorship’ once – in the quoted title of an article providing context. I don’t think no-platforming any individual is censorship (I don’t like it, but that’s not what it amounts to). It seems reasonable enough to decide you don’t want someone to speak – and it’s certainly reasonable to demonstrate, or protest, against invitations to speakers with whose views you profoundly disagree. No. The problem is that, when you look at the bigger pattern, we are still much more willing to silence women than men, feminists than not. That’s a pattern that worries me.

It worries me because I would like to keep teaching in a context where I can talk about things that are profoundly upsetting, and triggering, and on which I do have an ideological perspective. I want to teach in a context where people feel able to disagree with me – absolutely, categorically, without reservations – but where they’ll talk to me about it. I don’t want to see a university where we never mention questions like the politics of rape, of heterosex, of prostitution, of race relations.