Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Possible thesis titles...?

So, just as I'm trying to think of a title for my thesis, Per Omnia Saecula posted a link to something worryingly called The Amazing and Incredible, Only-Slightly-Laughable, Politically Unassailable, PoMo English Paper Title Generator. It provided amusement for all of five minutes! Here is what it suggested for SGGK (minus some repetitions of "the Gawain-poet's" because it wanted to put the author's name in there, which is rather pointless when we don't know it):

1. Speaking, Complicating, Queering: Homoerotics in the Gawain-poet and the Oriental Problematics of Dissection in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Well, Gawain does kiss Bertilak six times, completely unaware of possible 20th century homoerotic readings of the act, poor lad. But I really don't want to start analysing how that relates to the dissection of the carcases on the three days of the hunt. (Possibly via the symbolic castration of the reciprocal beheading scenes...?)

2. Territories as Notions: Alienating Marginalized Production in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
True! Many of the most beautifully produced objects in the poem come from Generic Exotic Foreign Locale. Let us read this as a decentralisation of post-colonial economic nationalisation and reconstruction!

3. Representing, (Be)laboring, Hybridizing: Ethnicity in the Gawain-poet and the Encoded Attraction of Murder in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Barely there, unless by extensiving (be)labouring of the point. Given 'ethnicity' in the poem is confined to a very narrow social, cultural and racial strata (basically, they're all English noblemen, except for the women, who don't count, and a guide and a porter, who are generic churls), there isn't much cross-analysis we can do. But there's plenty of murder! And a very attractive murderer-to-be. As a matter of fact, the Lady is quite attractive too - she could be said to be attracting him towards his own murder.

4. The Gawain-poet Fraying Seduction: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Subtext of Essentialism
I'm afraid I can only understand one word here in the context of the poem, and that's 'seduction'. So clearly an ideal paper title. There's plenty of subtext, after all, and the girdle probably frayed a bit after all that riding back home to Camelot through the wilderness.

5. The Postmodern Sectioning The Alien: the Gawain-poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Religion
Once again with the sectioning. Apparently those poor deer and the boar and the fox are more important than I thought. Also implicitly connected to the alien, the external - presumably the Green Knight? He is associated with the forest, after all! And the poem is, of course, permeated with religion. Perhaps the disassembling of body parts is how one assimilates the alien, making Gawain and his antagonist closer and more similar after Gawain's implicit decapitation than could have been a possibility before. We have a metaphor for this in the literal assimilation of the dissected 'alien' deer - they got eaten, didn't they? Proof! I think we have a winner.

Of course, none of this have the tiniest relevance to my thesis, and I was, I humbly admit, considering something a little more comprehensible and, well, interesting. But at least now I know what real paper titles look like!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Notes for a PHD proposal

So, in between busily scribbling bits of thesis, I somehow have to find brain space to think about next year and PHD possibilities. Here's my current thoughts.

Gentle words: choosing the non-violent approach.


In the final book of Malory's Morte Darthur, a desperate and bereaved Gawain tries to provoke Lancelot into battle with accusations of adultery, falsehood and betrayal. In failing to defend himself, Lancelot risks validating the accusations and attracting the additional charge of cowardice - and yet he, the best of Arthur's knights, deliberately chooses not to take up arms against his friend and his liege lord, even if this choice undermines his very being as a knight. I propose to explore literary and cultural perceptions of the choice of non-violence in the changing world of England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Considering the centrality of violence and force to both the chivalric ethos and to an effective justice system, I will also examine the effect such a choice might have on the formation of masculine identity and power. By studying literature such as political tracts, anonymous romances and saints' lives in addition to the more consciously constructed literature of writers such as Chaucer, Froissart, Malory and the Gawain-poet, I mean to examine the way in which the latter engaged with and rewrote cultural assumptions and constructs evident in the former.

Points to consider:

- The language of the formal university or theological disputatio was dominated by terms drawn from combat and physical dispute. Karras details the culture of masculine formation in late medieval universities and the transferral of aggressive response patterns from the physical military setting to the verbal university debate[1]. How was the non-violent choice depicted in this less literal setting? Did the virtual absence of women from the scene and the ban on marriage (where applicable) change the dynamic by depriving men of one possible way to prove their masculinity?

- Given the lower visibility of women in literature and the greater passivity of the female role in society and the home, can we determine to what extent these precepts were applied in the construction of feminine identity?

- Legends of saints' lives often celebrate the choice of non-resistance, the decision to suffer martyrdom unresisting for one's faith. This is one instance in which the author almost invariably commends the character unequivocably for the decision, though other characters in the narrative may mock or chide the saint for it. But is non-violence in the name of God an act of challenge and combat in itself? To what extent is the peaceful option as endorsed by religion used as an extenuating circumstance or justification for choosing to avoid violence in other situations?

- A fourteenth century political tract on good kingship would have it that "mercy with oute justise is no verrey mercy, but rathir it may be seid folye and symplesse. And also justise with oute mercy is crueltie and felonye, and thefore it is convenient that these II vertues be ever ensembled"[2]. This emphasis on judicious balance is paralleled by literary moments such as Theseus' careful retention of the power of both justice and mercy in The Knight's Tale and Froissart's depiction of a suspiciously similar Edward III during the siege of Calais. How do writers in the thirteenth and fourteenth century express concern with the upsetting of the scales of mercy and justice, or use their writing to explore and impose a more acceptable ideal?

That's all that springs to mind for now. It's a first draft, of course, and will probably be rewritten substantially. Of course, it would help if I knew what a PhD proposal is meant to look like... but finding out would involve research, which means time!

[1] Karras, Ruth Mazo. From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in late medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2002. 67-108.
[2] "The III Consideracions Right Necesserye to the good governaunce of a prince". Ed. Genet, Jean-Philippe. Four English Political Tracts of the Later Middle Ages. Camden Society, 4th Series (1977), 18. 200.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everyone needs a besotted biographer!

It seems I have posted very little lately, and that usually about Gawain. Given I've finished my Edward II essay now and the submission date for my thesis is little more than a month away, I'm focussing entirely on that now, so perhaps it isn't surprising that my mind has really only got one track.

Still. Posting should happen, because, if nothing else, "castration" is still the top of the list of most discussed topics in this blog, which is slightly disturbing. I am granting myself the evening off thinking about Gawain, because I've done a lot of writing in the last two days, scribbled plenty of notes for what I want to do with other parts of the thesis, re-read the whole of the first book of Troilus and Criseyde for today's seminar, rewritten and revised the Edward essay (just to be sure!) and provided lunch for the class today because my poor supervisor who was going to bring lunch is sick. And also I have an aglich headache (there is another Gawain-word we should bring back!).

So, for something completely different, which certainly does not involve castration: Henry VI!

For those who don't know him: the lad succeeded his manly warrior dad Henry V (he of the battle of Agincourt and "Once more unto the breach!" fame) in 1421 at the tender age of 8 months. He was a precocious child - that is, he was so pious that at the age of two he threw a tantrum when his mother tried to put him in a carriage. Nowadays we might consider that just was what kids do during the 'terrible twos', but at the time they understood that the lad simply had such a strong sense of what is right that he refused to travel on a Sunday.

Unfortunately, having been brought up with older, more capable people running the country, and being of a mild and compliant disposition, his approach to government seems to have consisted largely of "sign anything they put in front of me". Once, he granted the same position to two different men, the Earl of Devon and William Bonville. These two men just happened to be were very powerful figures (and rivals) in Cornish politics and who had been just looking for an excuse to start a miniature civil war in that part of the country. They took the excuse.

He was quite devout and seems to have been very concerned with piety and living a virtuous and holy life, but that's about all he managed to do successfully. Eventually one thing led to another and then to the Wars of the Roses, Henry lost his father's conquests in France and his own claim to that crown, went mad for a while, was used as a figurehead by various factions, was deposed, kept in prison, restored, deposed again, killed in 1471, and replaced by Edward IV, who was much more effective at actually governing.

That wasn't the end of the Wars, of course. The trouble with civil wars is that they tend to keep on going, and it isn't very pleasant for anyone involved. This is probably part of the reason for the nostalgia-cult that sprang up (during the reign of Richard III, unsurprisingly) that considered Henry to be a saint.

John Blacman, who was Henry's personal chaplain for part of his life, wrote his Memoires of him probably during Richard's reign (1483-85). He is unashamedly, unabashedly writing the man up to be a saint - "He was, like a second Job, a man simple and upright, altogether fearing the Lord God, and departing from evil. He was a simple man, without any crook of craft or untruth, as is plain to all. With none did he deal craftily, nor ever would say an untrue word to any, but framed his speech always to speak truth." (p. 26) Though his writing has little literary merit and probably even less of the historical, it's worth the read for the anecdotes that might be partly true, for what his emphases tell us about perceptions of masculinity and holiness at the time, and not least for the amusement value.

Here are some of my favourite Blacman moments:

His chastity.
This king Henry was chaste and pure from the beginning of his days. He eschewed all licentiousness in word or deed while he was young... he begat but one only son, the most noble and virtuous prince Edward; and with her and toward her he kept his marriage vow wholly and sincerely, even in the absences of the lady, which were sometimes very long: never dealing unchastely with any other woman. Neither when they lived together did he use his wife unseemly, but with all honesty and gravity.

Abstinence - not really a useful virtue when you're a hereditary monarch without brothers. What happened to 'an heir and a spare'? As it turned out, they could have done with the spare. Young Edward (so "noble and virtuous" that when he was eight he talked of nothing but chopping people’s heads off) was killed during the wars - but then, so were most other claimants to the throne, so perhaps it was just as well.

Hence it happened once, that at Christmas time a certain great lord brought before him a dance or show of young ladies with bared bosoms who were to dance in that guise before the king, perhaps to prove him, or to entice his youthful mind. But the king was not blind to it, nor unaware of the devilish wile, and very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back upon them, and went out to his chamber, saying:
Fy, fy, for shame, forsothe ye be to blame.

Poor girls. Though I'm sure the lord knew what the reaction would be and thought it'd be a good laugh. Perhaps it was a dare!

At another time when the executors of his uncle, the ... bishop of Winchester came to the king with a very great sum, namely £2000 of gold to pay him, for his own uses, and to relieve the burdens and necessities of the realm, he utterly refused the gift, nor would not receive it by any manner of means, saying: ‘He was a very dear uncle to me and most liberal in his lifetime. The Lord reward him. Do ye with his goods as ye are bound: we will receive none of them.’ The executors were amazed at this his saying, and entreated the king’s majesty that he would at least accept that gift at their hands for the endowment of his two colleges... This petition and gift the king gladly accepted... (32)

It's a lovely story, and very characteristic of Henry. Characteristic of Blacman is that he doesn't mention how far in debt the royal treasury was at the time and just how useful that money would have been. I daresay the executors knew, hence their amazement, but I wouldn't be surprised if Henry hadn't really noticed! Blacman gives another lovely example of his attitude to government:

... the Lord King himself complained heavily to me in his chamber at Eltham, when I was alone there with him employed together with him upon his holy books, and giving ear to his wholesome advice and the sighs of his most deep devotion. There came all at once a knock at the king’s door from a certain mighty duke of the realm, and the king said: ‘They do so interrupt me that by day or night I can hardly snatch a moment to be refreshed by reading of any holy teaching without disturbance.’ ... (37-8>

But other times, he just wanders off into legend:

Again, once when riding in a street which lay outside the graveyard to the east of a certain church, wherein the pyx that hung over the altar did not contain the sacrament of the Eucharist, he on that account did not bare his head, as he was wont always at other times to do most reverently in honour of the sacrament; and when many of his lords and nobles wondered thereat, he gave them his reason, saying: ‘I know that my Lord Jesus Christ is not there for me to do so in his honour.’ And it was found to be so as he had said. Nay, those who were his privy servants say that the king often saw our Lord Jesus presenting Himself in human form in the sacrament of the altar in the hands of the priest. (35-6)

... And once there, he stays there!

Also in the extreme pressure of his wars in the parts of the North, it is told by some who came from that region, that when there was for a time a scarcity of bread among his fellow-soldiers and troops... bread was so multiplied by his merits and prayers that a sufficiency and even a superfluity was forthcoming for all... (43)

Jesus really should have thought to get the copyright on that trick.

Henry the Sixth: A reprint of John Blacman's Memoir. Ed. and trans. James, M. R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Well, thif if a nice meff you've goc us inco!

It isn't a typo if you meant to spell it wrong, right? But what if you're a mediaeval scribe, sitting around with his pen and treated pig skin, copying out someone else's crabbed handwriting into your own crabbed handwriting, and you make a mistake? Is that a scribo? Scribble, maybe? Middle English spelling is often said to - well, to not exist at all, really, but most scribes drew the line (as it were) at substituting one letter for a completely different one - say, a 'w' for a 't'[1].

But sometimes you're just not sure. My edition of Gawain (Anderson's) has the following line in the description of the five five-fold virtues represented by the pentangle on Gawain's shield:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were fetled on this knyght, (656)
[Now, Gawain possessed all these five sets of virtues.]

Anderson glosses "sethes" and "fetled" in this line: the first as "sets (of five)", the second as... "settled".

I find this choice of Anderson's odd. Why write 'fetled' and not 'setled'? The scribe of the single surviving manuscript of the poem uses the long 's', the one that looks like an 'f' without a cross-stroke. In his handwriting, it's often very hard to tell the difference between the two letters, because the cross-stroke is very small. In fact, sometimes he's just careless and puts the cross-stroke on 's' or leaves it off 'f'. His 'c' and 't' are also close to indistinguishable, which means that we're still not sure whether the name of the Green Knight's alter ego is "Bertilak" or "Bercilak". So (fo?) a modern editor has to make a decision based on a) context and his/her knowledge of the English language and b) alliteration. A) is complicated by the fact that this poet is writing in a rather obscure dialect, and several forms of words - even a few words in their entirety - exist nowhere else in our surviving literature. "Runischly", for example - any editor who glosses that is just guessing what it means by the context in which it appears.

In this case, Anderson seems to have gone with b), and settled on "fetled". This would mean he reads 'f' as the alliterating letter in this line, which in turn means he thinks the main emphases of the line lie like this:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were fetled on this knyght.

I just can't agree with that. I like to think my status as a failed singer gives me a little more appreciation for rhythm and the music of words than that. To me, it's clearly the 's' that alliterates, which means the line must be:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were setled on this knyght.

Technically, it could be either. So far as I can make out in my facsimile of the manuscript, the cross-stroke of the 'f' is visible in this line - though, as I noted before, that isn't always a sure sign with this scribe, particularly when he's just recently written two 'f's which did require the cross-stroke and had a habit of just getting into a roll with these things. Elsewhere, he repeats whole words from earlier lines that are clearly inappropriate.

The OED does cite "fettle" as a verb at this time ("To make ready, put in order, arrange. Now only dial. to put to rights, ‘tidy up’, scour; also, to groom (a horse), attend to (cattle).") and cites this line from SGGK as one of its examples. It also cites one other example from a more or less contemporary English text, which it mysteriously calls E.E. Allit. P. B. 585: "He {th}at fetly in face fettled alle eres. Ibid. C. 38 In {th}e tyxte {th}ere {th}yse two arn on teme layde, Hit arn fettled in on forme" Clearly, in both of these examples, the alliteration demands 'f'.

Still. Just because the word exists doesn't mean the poet used it here. Perhaps its existence makes the scribe more likely to use 'f' (though this one didn't really need an excuse for his scribos), but I don't think the OED's meaning of "fettled" suits the occasion, and I find it slightly ridiculous that even Anderson thinks "settled" makes so much more sense than "fettled" that he glosses one with the other. I think I fhall fly in the face of Anderfon, Fir Ifrael Gollancz, Tolkien and Gordon, and everyone elfe who'f ever edited thif text and declared the point fettled. I lay my saith and considence in my ear, and shall hencesorth servently believe that the line should read "settled".

[1] Well. Mostly. The Gawain poet does spell both "Gawain" and "Guenevere" with an initial 'w' if he wants to alliterate on that letter instead...