Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The unseen butterfly; or, Thoughts on the space between the literal and the allegorical

This is a reflection written for the end of our Mediaeval Body course. It takes for granted a certain definition of 'the mediaeval body', and refers implicitly and explicitly to the class readings over the course of the semester. Consequently, there's no explanation of these references in the course of the essay, and, except for direct quotes (and a reference to The Book of Vices and Virtues, which wasn't on the reading list), nothing is footnoted. To make this more comprehensible for a blog post, I've added a separate set of footnotes, explaining the references. The numbered footnotes are in the original reflection; the lettered ones are just for this post.

The reflection is a response to a quote from Michael Camille: "In this period long before the Cartesian split between mind and body there was much more of a continuum between the two. The body was the receptor and receptable of sensation and crucial in the process of cognition. All knowledge, even that of the divine, had to be channelled through the body."


The Unseen Butterfly

The Book of Vices and Virtues describes the liar as “a butre-flye, þat lyueþ by þe aier and haþ no þing in hire guttes but wynd, and at euery colour þat sche seþ sche chaungeþ hire owne”.1 It is not an isolated image: Lorens d’Orleans’ carefully explicated catalogue of the seven deadly sins is full of references to sinners not merely as animalistic, but almost literally as animals. The lines between what is literal and observable in the world and the allegorical understanding of the literal can be seen to shift and blur in the late mediæval period, sited most strongly on the symbolic interpretation of the body. Camille’s understanding of the body as “receptor and receptable of sensation and crucial in the process of cognition” and of the consequent necessity of channelling “all knowledge, even that of the divine”2 through the body is particularly relevant here. The most potent and challenging ideas in the mediæval world, as well as ideas trivial and comic, could be expressed and understood most powerfully – most viscerally – when located on the physical body. Over and over, mediæval writings demonstrate the need to literalise the abstract, in particular to experience it through the body in order to make it understood, to own it or perhaps even to control it.

The observation of real butterflies has little place in Lorens d’Orleans’ allegorical depiction. Such a metaphor today would draw scepticism, because we hold the image of a literal butterfly as a separate naturalistic definition in our minds, and expect a good metaphor to mimic it. There is an echo of appropriateness in the fact that butterflies come in a variety of colours and will instinctively seek out perches against which their particular array will camouflage; but they will not change colour themselves, and neither Lorens nor his audience can possibly have seen them do so. The accepted fact of changing colour, then, was an attribute not of the observable butterfly, but one that belonged to the communal imagination. Lorens’ butterfly is an almost purely allegorical creature, appropriate to the liar because she3 feeds on air – on words – and has no power “in hire guttes” but that same air, her body mutating of necessity to suit her changing circumstances. Other animals to which he compares sinners – pigs, hyenas, mermaids – are described in similar terms. The mundane, exotic and fantastic are all colourful symbols rather than worldly creatures, creatures that inhabit the bestiary rather than pigsty or hedgerow. Lorens’ animals are not products of the literal. His pigs do not behave like mundane pigs, but recall the Gadarene swine “in tokenynge þat glotouns þat leden here lif in glotonye as swyn, þe deuel haþ power to entre wiþ-ynne hem and drenche hem in þe see, þat is to seye in helle”.4 They are memorable, repulsive, even amusing reminders of the effect of sin on the sinner. Conversely, the phrasing in which the traits of the animal are applied to the sinner is strikingly literal: almost invariably a metaphor, not a simile. The effect of this is to reinforce the message of inhumanity and degradation that results from each sin described, no less true for being allegorical and unobservable in the real world. The mirroring of the bestial state of mind in the bodies of the sinners thus becomes a way of observing the ‘real’ truth about sinners.

Gerald of Walesa provides a more literal depiction of bestial human bodies. Claiming true physicality for his werewolves, ox-men, man-women, deformed children and other monsters, he repeatedly invokes his own observations as authority. Insisting on preserving the littera of his account of Ireland’s people, he nevertheless engages with the allegorical when he attributes all these deformities to the moral deficiencies of the Irish.5 Similarly, his accounts of individual creatures, though often sympathetic, lend themselves easily to moral allegory reminiscent of Lorens’ depiction of humans reduced by their actions to the level of beasts. He himself glosses his account of the woman who had “bestial intercourse” with a goat, for example, to say that the woman proved herself “more a beast in accepting him than he did in acting”.6 The real Irish thus become, via Gerald’s pen, a people whose (supposed) primitive morals and essential foreignness make them fascinating but subhuman, the monsters that live among them simultaneously result, punishment and symbol of their moral state. If Mittmanb is correct, Gerald’s History and Topography of Ireland is, on the one hand, an attempt to externalise and explore his own hybridity, and on the other to recast himself as a member of society by defining an ‘other’ far more monstrous and alien than himself. Accounting for his ambivalent attitude towards the creatures he describes, this suggests that the act of writing was for Gerald both a means to understanding his own mixed-race body and his place in the world, and to use images of the deformed body and mind to manipulate his readers’ understanding of what true otherness meant.

To turn from the sub-human to the divine: the cult of Sainte Foyc, like that of many another saint, was primarily a practical one. Her physical presence in Conques served to answer the everyday needs of their bodies – assistance with pregnancy, healing or freedom of prisoners. The concern of her flock for their own bodies is matched by the concern they project onto the saint for her ‘body’ - the anthropomorphic jewelled reliquary containing her mortal remains. Bernard of Angers narrates stories of the man who refused to worship her image, and the girl who refused to stand up as it was carried by, together with the punishment inflicted on them by the saint “as if [they] had shown disrespect for the holy martyr herself”.7 Bernard’s narration of the village’s direct and practical tales is coloured by his theological education, and his anxiety to demonstrate that the cult conforms with accepted church standards. Close identification of the saint with her ‘body’ is a crucial element in defending Conques from the charge of idolatry: the image is not worshipped as an idol, but for the martyr it represents. The physical form of the statue, though valuable, is understood by the devout to be less important than what it contains and symbolises. While the literal, observable statue is for the villagers a means to access the saint and comprehend her sanctity, it also has the potential to be a distraction. Bernard eliminates this possibility by (literally) incorporating it, isolating it within the story of a man who made that mistake. The fool who wished the statue would shatter in order that he might snatch the fallen jewels becomes an example of wrongful understanding of the relationship between the observable and the mysterious. He is justly punished, bodily humiliated for concentrating on the physical body to the exclusion of the spiritual.

Mediæval attitudes towards death also show a complex interchange between literal and allegorical understandings of the body. Death as a literal experience was never far away from the susceptible body, nor was it distant as a metaphorical realm. According to Camille, “the body was not thought to be truly dead, its spirit separated from the body, until a year after burial. Only when all the flesh had left it and it was nothing, nobody, was it ‘Death’”. The body itself thus bridges an uneasy gap between life and non-existence, a gap which could be transgressed in other ways: the intercession of dead saints for the living via the physical remains of their bodies (such as Sainte Foy), the categorisation of lepers and the religious as ‘dead’ to the world, or stories in which people could walk from the ordinary world into the realm of the dead with their own fleshly feet. The metaphorical death of the leper, priest or nun was enacted on the living body to bring the symbolic as close as possible to the literal. A new monk, for example, was required to close himself for three days in a cloister as Christ did in his tomb, before joining his brothers in his new ‘life’.9 More dramatically, a leper’s seclusion office includes hearing mass under a black cloth “after the manner of a dead man, although by the Grace of God he yet lives in body and spirit”, and having a spadeful of earth cast on each foot by the presiding priest in a symbolic burial.10 All wore clothes physically denoting the special status of their body.11 Similarly, Owein’s journey to Purgatoryd does not appear to be unnatural or impossible. The trials are difficult – many men have died attempting them – but not beyond the strength of a truly virtuous Christian who can keep his mind on his divine guide. Like the pilgrim Dante, he walks from this world into the next in his own body, insisting like Dante on the literal truth of the allegorical journey. Believing the story of either descent requires the capacity to subordinate the observed state of reality to the allegorical, but the potential for a literal interpretation strengthens the emotional effect of the story. Everyday humans do not typically stroll into Purgatory and back; but the possibility of such a literal crossing (even if fantastic) makes death seem perhaps a little more controllable, more understandable.

Owein also confronts the apparent paradox that all the souls he sees are fully incorporated, experiencing horrible torments visited on bodies which they ought no longer possess. This is hardly unexpected, however. Torments inflicted on some incorporeal spirit are difficult to comprehend and carry no power, and would therefore lose any relevance as an allegory. The mediæval spirit, moreover, cannot be satisfactorily separated from the body. Even at the moment of death, the moment of that very separation, it is often depicted wafting from the physical mouth in the shape of a miniature copy of the body it is departing. If the soul is the self, and the self is located in the body, soul and body are inextricable. Any torments visited on the soul must be therefore comprehended through the suffering of that body, even in Purgatory or Hell, with all its leaking fluids, piteous moans and susceptibility to pain and damage. The power of such an allegory can be seen in the accounts of holy women like Christina Mirabilise who underwent (or were said to undergo) these pains literally during life, enacting or experiencing in their own bodies in life what they understood to be a literal reality awaiting those bodies in death.

Here, of course, the distinctions between the allegorical and the literal blur into little more than a personal judgement call; as they must, given their overlapping nature. To a culture that believes in the physical reality of Hell, of divine intervention, of the Host changing imperceptibly but literally into flesh, the narrower tag of “observable” is nonsense. But the distinction is important, even if it serves only to demonstrate the relative unimportance of the observable in the mediæval Christian world, a world overlaid with symbolism and ordered by an invisible power. Allegory and physical reality were interdependent: literalisms in allegory served to explain what one could observe literally in the world or in one’s self. What is a real butterfly to that? There were, indeed, truths considered literal that were too mysterious to be appropriate for human observation. Paradise is one: Owein is prevented from entering the final gate because he is not ready. Transubstantiation is another, as Aquinas so painstakingly explains: though Christ is literally there, “since the way [he] exists in this sacrament totally transcends nature, his body can be seen only by God’s own mind and the blessed in heaven with whom he shares the vision. Men can know it in this life only by faith”.12 And orthodox priests seem to have been horrified at the twelfth-century depiction of the Trinity appearing to Abraham with three headsf – despite the fact that the metaphor it embodied was one the church itself insisted was literal.

It would be a difficult and ultimately fruitless task to try to determine just how literally any of these metaphors was believed. The answer, no doubt, would vary from person to person, culture to culture and generation to generation. Did the discrepancy between Lorens’ butterfly and the butterfly on the twig really bother anyone? Did people eye priests over sceptically and mutter mutinously that anyone could see they weren’t actually dead? Aquinas’ care to explain the exact mechanics of transubstantiation, and Bernard of Anger’s defensiveness about the possibility of worship being transferred from idea to idol, suggest that the boundaries between observation and allegory could be and sometimes were problematic. However, the beauty of allegory is that it allows – indeed, requires – belief and understanding of the world on multiple levels at once. In an era fascinated with self-exploration, the observable butterfly is of limited interest; but the allegorical butterfly provides an opportunity to explore the relationship of the physical human body to the world, and vice versa. The continuum between mind and body allowed things that were real purely in the mind – the imaginary, the allegorical, the divine – to be translated and understood through the medium of the body, in order to return them more real to the imagination. There is therefore no absolute neat division between the literal and the imagined: both frequently spilled out into the space between them in which meaning could be explored. If the three-headed Trinity had the capacity to shock the conservative with its literal embodiment of a spiritual metaphor, the fact that it existed at all shows that the space between the two extremes was at once fruitful and fascinating to the mediæval mind.

1 The book of vices and virtues: a fourteenth century English translation of the Somme le roi of Lorens d'Orleans, ed. W. Nelson Francis, Early English Text Society OS 217 (London: Oxford UP, 1942), 60

2 Michael Camille, ‘The image and the self: unwriting late medieval bodies,’ in Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester & New York: Manchester UP, 1994), 94.

3 Considering the treacherous mutability of the feminine body in mediæval thought, the gendering of the butterfly as feminine may well be deliberate. As the French “papillon” is masculine, the use of “elle” or “sche” is unlikely to be an accident of grammar.

4 Vices and Virtues, 47.

5 Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 181.

6 Gerald of Wales, Topography, 75.

7 The Book of Sainte Foy, trans. Pamela Sheingorn (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP), 79.

8 Camille, ‘The image and the self’, 84-85.

9 Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (New York: Cornell UP), 58.

10 Peter Richards, The Medieval Leper and his Northern Heirs (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1977), 123.

11 Lorens d’Orleans extends the metaphor from the body of the priest to that of the sinner when he speaks of backbiting, saying that those who slander “þe goode holy men of religioun” who are “dede as in þis world” are themselves transformed into “þe felle and wikkede best þat men clepeþ heyene, þat goþ and delueþ vp dede bodies of folke and eteþ hem” (Vices and Virtues, 59).

12 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (London: Eyre and Spotswood, 1989), 578.


a Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John J. O’Meara (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982). Gerald of Wales writes of his travels in Ireland, telling of the strange ways of Ireland. Cocks crow at a different time, snakes are not poisonous, children are often deformed or weak, there are werewolves and other odd creatures, etc. He is particularly (and sympathetically) interested in the monstrous hybrids he met there – several creatures, half human and half beast, which are all the results of humans copulating with animals, because the Irish are so degenerate. He himself is half Welsh, and his mixed blood seems to have led to discrimination against him during his lifetime.

b Mittman, Asa Simon, “The Other close at hand: Gerald of Wales and the ‘Marvels of the West’”, ed. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, The Monstrous Middle Ages,(Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), 97-112. Mittman speculates that Gerald’s own hybridity led him to attempt to assert his essential similarity with the English by providing through his writing an example of a race far more alien than himself.

c The Book of Sainte Foy, trans. Pamela Sheingorn (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 1995). Bernard of Angers is the author of several of the documents in the Book, particularly the miracle tales in which he, a theologically educated man and a convert to the cult of Sainte Foy, tries rather defensively to justify the worship of the rich jewelled golden statue that contains her relics by recounting stories of the miracles that Sainte Foy has delivered to the community of her worshippers in the town of Conques – including punishing anyone who doesn’t treat her reliquary with due respect.

d ”The Knight Owein’s Journey through St Patrick’s Purgatory”, ed. John Shinners, Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader (Ontario: Broadview, 1997).

e ”The Life of Christina the Astonishing”, ed. E. Spearing, Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002). Christina the Astonishing really is. After leading a quiet life as a virtuous shepherdess, she dies, then subverts expectations by flying out of the coffin at her funeral and perching on the rafters of the church. After this she refuses to be normal. She regularly flits about, perches on roofs and in trees, can’t abide the smell of humans, flees into the wilderness, is chained up by her despairing family and miraculously escapes, curls herself up into a ball of flesh regardless of trifles such as bones and sinews, and feeds herself on her own milk. She also takes up throwing herself into burning ovens, drowning herself, hanging herself and inflicting lots of painful tortures on her body, all of which heal instantly, though she screams in pain. The narrator tells us that she does this because God has promised her that her pain in this life will alleviate that of souls burning in Purgatory, and allow them to ascend to heaven faster.

f A twelfth-century image of the Trinity appearing to Abraham, depicted as an enthroned angel with three heads. Reproduced in Camille, “The image and the self”, 73.

2 comments:

Lady Despenser's Scribery said...

A really interesting post - very thoughtful too. I learned alot from this - thanks Ceirseach.

Ceirseach said...

Good to hear. :) I certainly learned a lot from doing all the reading - those were good readings. I might have to get them all rebound so they don't fall apart horribly.