Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Catalogue Aria

Because, though non-mediaeval, this is the most amazing Mozart production I have ever seen (white trash Leporello! Don Giovanni who is emotionally affected!). And therefore I am forcing a friend to watch this link. And it is subtitle-less, and she does not speak Italian, and therefore:

[Donna Elvira, formerly seduced and abandoned by Giovanni, has shown up unexpectedly. He, rather disconcerted, shoved her off onto his servant Leporello, with a hasty "here, this man will explain everything!" and ran away, leaving Leporello even more disconcerted. Or, in this production, leaped onto the bus shelter roof to hide. Libretto is from memory, so may vary from strictly accurate.]

Ebben, fa presto.
Well, get on with it.

Madama, veramente, in questo mondo conciossiacosaquandofosseche... il quadro non è tondo -
Madam, to tell you the truth, in this world, withwhenwherehowwaswhat... a square isn't a circle -

Sciagurato! Così del mio dolor gioco ti prendi? A, voi -
Scoundrel! Are you [familiar] mocking my grief? Ah, you [formal], sir -

[She turns and notices Don Giovanni has vanished.

Stelle! L'iniquo fuggì! Misera me! Dove? In qual parte?
Heavens! The wicked man has gone! Woe! Where? Which way did he go?

Ehi, lasciate che vada. Egli non merta che voi di lui pensiate.
Oh, let him go. He's not worth your attention.

Il scellerato m'ingannò, mi tradì -
The villain deceived me, betrayed me -

Ehi, consolatevi. Non siete voi, non foste e non sarete ne la prima, ne l'ultima. Guardate:
Look, calm down. You aren't, weren't and won't be the first or the last. Look:

[Usually, he produces a giant volume in which he has noted down every woman that his master has conquered. Here? He points to the bus timetable - which presumably includes the names of many towns (countries?). But does this mean that he's making it up? Don Giovanni doesn't look too impressed!]

Questo non picciol libro è tutto pieno dei nomi di sue belle. Ogni borgo, ogni villa, ogni paese, è testimon di sue donnesche imprese.
This not inconsiderable volume is full of the names of his beloveds. Every town, every city, every country is witness to his womanly conquests.


Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Little lady, this is the catalogue
Delle belle che amò il padron mio.
Of the beauties my master has loved.
Un catalogo egl'è ch'ho fatt'io;
It's a catalogue I've made myself;
Osservate, leggete con me,
Osservate, leggete con me!
Observe: read with me!

In Italia 640,
In Almagnia 231,
100 in Francia, in Turchia 91,
Ma in Ispagna, ma in Ispagna son già 1003.
But in Spain, 1003 already!

V'han fra queste contadin, cavaliere, cittadine,
Among these are peasant lasses, ladies, city girls,
V'han contesse, baronesse, marchesane, principesse,
Countesses, baronesses, marchionesses, princesses,
E v'han donne d'ogni grado, d'ogni forma, d'ogni età.
And ladies of every rank, every shape, every age.

In Italia [etc]... 1003.

Nella bionda egli ha l'usanza di lodar la gentilezza
With the blonde, he usually praises her gentility,
Nella bruna la costanza, nella bianca la dolcezza
With brunette, her constancy; in the very fair, sweetness,
Vuol d'inverno la grassotta, vuol d'estate la magrotta,
In winter he wants chubby ones, in summer the slender,
È la grande maestoso, la piccina è ognor vezzosa.
He calls large ladies majestic, and small ones charming.

Delle vecchie fa conquista pel piacer di porle in lisa.
He conquers some old women, for the pleasure of adding them to the list.
Sua passion predominante è la giovin principiante.
His dominating passion is the young beginner.

Non si picca se sia ricca, se sia brutta, se sia bella:
He isn't picky - if she's rich, if she's ugly, if she's beautiful,
Purchè porti la gonnella - voi sapete quel che fa!
So long as she wears a skirt - well, you know what he does!


Random fact for the day. Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, was having trouble getting a feel for the psychology of Don Giovanni. So he dropped by to visit his friend Casanova for advice! Some people feel this was unreasonable - da Ponte was nearly as much of an expert as Casanova.

Also, I believe the original actor of Don Giovanni was 21, which makes the total even more impressive.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Three Species of Allegorical Fox

From time to time in mediaeval (and not only mediaeval) art and literature, animals drop by - mostly symbolic ones. By their character and generally understood perceptions of them, they stand in for something or other, often glossed by context. Butterflies and chameleons, whom I discussed a few posts back, are two of the rarer creatures in this little occasional zoo, so their meaning is rather sparse and one-sided. If they were in a dictionary, they'd only have one entry. Creatures like lions, boars, deer and foxes, on the other hand, are more familiar and more common, and often have a range of (sometimes contradictory) meanings. If they were in a dictionary, they would take up a whole column with different definitions.

Or, to hop abruptly to a different metaphor[1]: there is only one species of butterfly, and it is closely related to the chameleon - probably in the same genus. But there are many different species of fox within the vulpes genus. Here are three encountered in my reading today, from just one text[2]:

Vulpes astuta carnivora, or the Sly Devouring Fox, is a subtle threat in that he rarely shows his true self, but desires only to soothe his prey with an innocuous face before bolting it down. If thwarted, may resort to sarcasm:
Ther be nowe oo maner of pepill [a kind of people] that be gret desyuerres [deceivers], [like] as these grete loordes the which taketh giftes and seruices of thoo that hatth neede of theire helpe and euer taketh and euer promisseth and atte the laste they haue but federis [feathers] and woordis, as the foxe seide to the larke. (167, 'Off Disceite')
Cheated out of a satisfying meal, this species may accuse his erstwhile victim of resorting to his own tricks, possibly unaware of his hypocrisy.

Vulpes astuta arguta, or the Clever-tongued Fox, belongs to the same sub-species as the last, but is better known for his smooth tongue and his ability to convince his victim to act in a way detrimental to their own interests. He may then take advantage of the deception to devour his prey, as does V. a. carnivora, or he may seek to deprive them of some other benefit or possession:
Alsoo ther be some strong disseyueres ... [who] maketh to beleve that the swan is blacke[3] and the crowe white, as the foxe didde the ravyn whom he sawe hoolde a peece of chese in his beeke. "Oo birde"[4], seide hee, "what thowe art feire and white. If thowe kowdest [could] synge, thow sholdest passe [surpass] alle birdes." And than he [the raven] reioyssed [rejoiced] hym and openyed the beeke to synge. And the cheese felle fro hym, and the foxe cawght it anon. This is of Ysopeis fablis [Aesop's fables], but the example is noo fable, that siche foxes and siche flatererris [flatterers] berith aweye grete rentes and gret giftes and ... lacketh but oo thyng, as Seneque [Seneca] seith, that is to seye, on to seye trouthe. (167, 'Off Disceite')

Vulpes lasciva dissumulata, also known as the Lusty Brush-tail. A rarer species, of which only the females are seen. Definitely not to be trusted, and motivated primarily by lust for sensual pleasure. These conceal their evil nature not with their words, but with an exceptionally large and luxuriously furred tail. If the tail is pried aside, however, their filthy, stinking underbelly and privy parts may be discerned:
[Flatterers] ascuseth [excuse] and couerith the synnes of theyme that theye wil flatere. And therfore in scripture theye be called tailles, for theye couere the harlotrye [not solely sexual] of the synnes of riche men for some temporel availe. Wherfore theye be likenyd to the tayle of a shee foxe [she-fox] ... for theire deceit and theire trecherie. (197, 'Off Flaterynge')

It seems that I'll have to keep an eye out for more foxes in order to flesh out the species tree! Reynard in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of course, borrows from all these traditions, including the coward, the vermin-in-the-hunting-field and the (literally!) uncovered deceiver, of which we have no representative today. But sadly, he is too much of a hybrid to be properly classified.

[1] It's not mixing if the first one never recurs! Juxtaposed metaphors?

[2] The mirroure of the worlde: a Middle English translation of Le miroir du monde, ed. Robert R. Raymo et al. for the Bodlein Library, Medieval Academy Books 106 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). It's very similar to The Book of Vices and Virtues - enough so that either the French source of one must have been copying the other, or they were both indebted to one common source. Mirroure, however, lacks the butterfly metaphor.

[3] Apparently the author had never visited Australia.

[4] Inverted commas inserted by yours truly, to make the direct speech easier to decipher for anyone less familiar with Middle English.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Chaucer and Mozart: Twin souls!

Alright, so the last post wasn't really mediaeval in subject. Neither is this one - but it has a mediaeval connection, in that I leap-frog from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Mozart along a common thread. Never mind that each leap is 200 years long.

I was chatting to a cellist friend, who's staying in this house while rehearsing for an audition for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. She mentioned that she'd like to get to know the operatic repertoire a little better, and... well, it ended up with me having one of my besotted little raves about the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, particularly my favourite, Così fan tutte.

For those who don't know it - well, it's easy to summarise. Remarkably easy, for an opera. One of the reasons I love it is for its beautiful structure - it has a lovely symmetry, both musically and dramatically, which makes it a joy to listen to and gives it the perfect action curve for a theatrical piece. There are six characters - three women, three men (two sopranos, one mezzo, one tenor, two basses - symmetry!), consisting of two pairs of lovers, their older male friend (Don Alfonso) and a ladies' maid, Despina. Don Alfonso makes a bet with the headstrong, enthusiastic young men that, despite their passionate belief in their lovers' fidelity, no woman can possibly remain faithful. They're not made for fidelity, and so "così fan tutte" - all women behave like that. To prove the women's fidelity, the younger men agree to pretend to go off to war, then to dress as foreigners and each attempt to win the fiancee of the other man. Eventually, it works; a wedding feast is prepared, and in the middle of it the men slip off and return in their own persons to upbraid their erstwhile fiancees for unfaithfulness.

A two-sentence summary like that is a little misleading. The young men (Guglielmo and Ferrando) take most of the active verbs, reducing Don Alfonso's role to the initial bet, their lovers' to passive ciphers, and leaving the maid Despina out altogether. But Don Alfonso and Despina in fact run the whole affair - Alfonso is the puppet master from start to finish, and lets Despina think she is one too, though he doesn't let her in on the whole affair and she is, by the end, reduced to humiliation with her mistresses. Despina also provides an important thematic counterpoint, in that she tries to urge the women on to love, asserting feminine independence from men and their ability to choose their own path (while Alfonso maintains they have no choice but to fall), and pointing out repeatedly that men are just as unfaithful as women, if not more so. The summary, however, is not misleading in one thing: the two noblewomen (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) are passive. But to what degree, and just how - this is the critical problem!

Whenever I explain Così to anyone, I usually find myself excusing it. Don Alfonso is proved right - women are like that - so it can come across as horribly misogynistic. Its performance history has suffered from that - I believe in the nineteenth century it was rewritten to have Despina reveal the secret to her ladies early on, so that they are only playing along for most of the second act, and turn the tables on the men in the final scene. But you see, knowing the opera, and knowing (to a certain extent) Mozart and his librettist da Ponte... I can't believe that we are meant to watch it so superficially. If it were a work of non-operatic literature, no one would believe that was the intent. Perhaps operatic audiences are just too used to having morals on the surface, simple but very loud answers, tragic or comic. If the point of the opera were simply "ha, see how faithless women are!" we would be laughing at them by the end. But we aren't - the level of sympathy and the psychological depth in the music of the women - particularly in the second act, when they feel themselves beginning to give way - are such that we increasingly rebel against Don Alfonso's instructions - just as the young men are becoming too drawn in to back out. We can't lay blame easily - the women are played on, Despina is just going along with her cheerful philosophy of 'do unto men as they do unto us', the young men pledged their honour as soldiers to obey Don Alfonso's instructions for 24 hours in the blithe confidence that they would win the bet easily, and Alfonso - well, the indignant lads forced him to promise to prove his assertion, at swordpoint. Over breakfast! And the final scene is heartbreaking. They have to marry - there's no other way forward, no other way to end the opera and insist that it is a comedy, Alfonso and social expectation and genre constrain them, but the music... how on earth are these couples going to ever trust each other, or anyone else, ever again?

It's generally believed that the opera was commissioned - Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart did not have the freedom to choose their plot, could not decide that the women would remain faithful and disprove the adage, but they could choose how they treated it: spreading the blame, exposing the cruelty to all parties involved of the situation, the plot, the actions of the characters that weren't meant to be cruel, that were all a bit of fun until... And suddenly, as I was explaining this, I realised that this line of argument was familiar - not just from my own previous rants about the opera, but from much more recently:

For which right now myn herte ginneth blede,
And now my penne, allas! With which I wryte,
Quaketh for drede of that I moot endyte.
For how Criseyde Troilus forsook,
Or at the leste, how that she was unkinde,
Mot hennes-forth ben matere of my book,
As wryten folk through which it is in minde.
Allas! That they sholde ever cause finde
To speke hir harm... (Troilus and Criseyde, IV.12-20)


Ne me ne list this sely womman chyde
Ferther than the story wol devyse.
Hir name, allas! Is publisshed so wyde,
That for hir gilt it oughte y-noe suffyse.
And if I mighte excuse hir any wyse,
For she so sory was for hir untrouthe,
Y-wis, I wolde excuse hir yet for routhe. (V.1093-1099)

And so on. Chaucer's uneasiness with Criseyde's fidelity is well-known, of course, and there's little point quoting more of it. But the attitude in both cases seems to me very similar. The essential difference, I think, is the necessary lack of authorial presence in a stage production. But is it necessary? Not really. It's easy enough to add an authoritative moral presence - either through a consistent moral message that's easily detectable (often put in the mouth of the chorus), or physically, in the form of a character whose opinions are meant to be taken as sound judgement (and who is usually, in opera, disregarded, otherwise the tragic ending might be tragically averted). And then, of course, there's the even simpler expedient of sticking to plots that completely fail to challenge the audience's judgement at all and go for their effect by either tickling or punching in the belly. This is the majority of opera.[1]

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that disrupting the easy moral closure of any theatrical piece requires conscious effort on the part of the composer/playwright. Well, either that or extreme carelessness. Which brings us to our convenient midway point, he who made a theatrical piece out of Troilus and Criseyde, he who was the expert at avoiding giving us any hint of his real voice: William Shakespeare.

But even for Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida is remarkably unstable in terms of a moral base. The introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare[2] details admirably the competing codes for evaluating actions and events that are thrown at us in a dizzying array within just the first few scenes of the play. Those of them that do recur are never finally resolved, unless it is to be proved insufficient. The only character who might be seen as finally admirable is Hector, and his code is, finally, not sufficient either: we see him abandon it for the sake of glory when he agrees to sell away Criseyde so that he can have his duel with Achilles, and his adherence to it in the end deprives Troy of its greatest protector, Priam of his son, Andromache of her husband, his son of a father, his city of a future. Nothing that is presented to us in the course of the play suffices to judge it: they are all proved limited points of view, belonging only to the characters that speak them, incapable of comprehending the whole world. The scene that brings this most sharply into focus is quite near the end: the scene in which Criseyde, in the Greek camp, finally gives herself to Diomedes. She and he talk in the centre; she comments on her own actions; Troilus and Ulysses watch and comment on that scene; Thersites watches actors and watchers, commenting on all of them; and the audience sees them all. The instability and limitation of every judgement passed onstage is witnessed by the final set of watchers, putting them in a privileged position and inviting them to judge for themselves, but demonstrating in the process the limitations of any judgement at all.

So why the distancing? why the instability? Is Shakespeare disassociating himself from the story, drawing back as Chaucer the narrator does? I don't think so - at least, not in the same way. But certainly, to focus specifically on the question of harsh judgement on the fickle woman - it would be much harder to ascribe any comments passed about her in the play to Shakespeare himself than it is to, for example, imagine him agreeing with the final dismissal of Don John as a villain in Much Ado About Nothing. His attitude to Cressida, so far as it can be detected (which is barely at all) doesn't seem to me very similar to the attitudes of Chaucer and Mozart/da Ponte to their unfaithful women; but there may be a thread of connection there.

Mozart and da Ponte don't dissociate themselves to nearly the same extent. Neither have a narrative "I" to intrude into the theatre - but Mozart was literally in the theatre, remember, dominating the performance in a way that Shakespeare couldn't, even as an actor. As a conductor, he led it, and as composer... well. He gives it a soul which is much easier to trace, to feel, than grasping through printers' errors and actors' amendments for Shakespeare's meanings. The warmth and tenderness in his music, the wit and the humanity and the delicate distinctions in the reactions of parallel characters in identical situations... they are human, where they could so very easily remain ciphers to the plot, as the women seem determined to remain ciphers to social constructions.

... And now I think of it, there are a remarkable number of eavesdropping/spying scenes in the opera too - especially in the second act, where the seduction starts to take effect, and the characters start to obsessively analyse their own actions and feelings, as well as those of the others onstage.

That was entirely too long a post, wasn't it. If anyone read to the end - well done!

I did mention Mozart makes me rave besottedly, right?

[1] As a former singer who adores opera, I have licence to say so, just as I'm allowed by virtue of nationality to poke fun at Steve Irwin's accent.

[2] I don't remember who wrote it, and my Norton is in Melbourne and I am in Adelaide. This will have to do for a citation for now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Papist, Protestant or Puritan?

This quote started me musing:

"The word Puritan is an essential engine [of the attempt to push English religion towards conformation with Rome] ... For this word in the mouth of a drunkard doth mean a sober man, in the mouth of an Arminian, an Orthodox man, in the mouth of a papist, a Protestant. And so it is spoke to shame a man out of all religion, if a man be ashamed to be saved."

Francis Rous, in an address to the Short Parliament of 1640.[1]

We all know words like this, of course - words whose precise meaning is inexact, but whose employment would make anyone scurry to be on the opposite side. Vague enough to mean whatever you want it to mean, you just know that you don't want to identify yourself as one. Very useful in times of national stress, these words are often used to create a sense of 'other' to define a more cohesive 'us' - or, of course, to isolate rivals in the school playground. The word 'Puritan' was (almost) always applied to someone else, some other group - either to define a general, non-specific group against whom we can identify us, or to villify a specific person or challenge that needed to be discredited or attacked.

But wasn't this exactly what 'papist' was used for in the century leading up to the civil war? How do you discard an entire belief system at once? You don't, of course - you cling to some parts of it and gradually work out which bits you want to maintain, as a community - but you don't work as a community, you work as a set of individuals, pulled back and forth by individual preferences and the cacophany of different voices and conflicting systems flying about the place from different parts of Europe. And the printing press, of course, increased exponentially the number of voices that could be heard. So if a country is coming gradually to define our kind of Protestantism, it has to do so while taking all these voices into account, choosing which to listen to. And there is virulent argument, of course, and a word like 'papist' can be applied to whatever you choose to associate with the wrong-headed old way of doing things - vestments, ceremony, ideas about methods of salvation, or, if you're so inclined, anything that does not conform with the most strict ideas of predestination. Your path is defined by away - true godliness is to move away from papism, rather than any clear towards.

But you can only go in one direction for so long. No one wants to live absolutely without ceremony or tradition (certainly not Charles I), and eventually you do need some kind of power hierarchy in the church. And you will never persuade an entire population to live permanently in a state of personal ethical purity, rather than just going along to the ceremony once a week and living fairly normally the rest of the time. So you set up a limit in that direction too - the Puritan, an idea to be regarded with almost as much revulsion as the papist. Perhaps more - after all, at least initially, it's closer to home, and you run more risk of attracting the same accusation yourself, until you work out just what it is and move away from that label too.

And now your identity rests somewhere in between, defining yourself as definitely-not-Puritan and definitely-not-papist as the need arises, and applying the closest word to anything inappropriate that comes along which you ferociously do not want to be us.

[1] Esther S. Cope and Willson H. Coates (eds), Proceedings of the Short Parliament of 1640, Camden 4th series 19 (London 1977), 147.
Cited in Michael Braddick, God's fury, England's fire: A new history of the civil wars (London: Penguin, 2008), 49.

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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Three new facts for today

Well, now that everything is handed in, I have leisure to concentrate on my own projects, and simultaneously to be less concentrated - ie, read up on all those bits and pieces of English history that I'm not too familiar with. Such as... er... everything before 1066.

So, among other things, I'm reading Christopher Brook's From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272 (Edinburgh: T. Nelson, 1961). It's latently patriotic in style, and mildly amusing in its assumptions about our views of English history - even I know that his attitude towards Vikings are out of date, and he's far too inclined to speculate on motives and call it fact - but informative enough, and covers the span broadly enough that it gives a sense of the whole 'story', which will let me jump in at any point with more detailed studies and not feel lost.

Here are the three interesting facts I've learned this morning, over coffee and Brook:

Cnut, the first Danish king of England, married the young widow of his conquered English predecessor. So, Havelok is actually utilising bits of history to weave its non-confrontational, non-invasive story of a Danish king of England. His own entry into England is not at the head of an army, but as a harmless child, and he is raised in England and therefore presumably has some legitimacy as an inhabitant. The waves of Danish invasion/settlement are replaced by an innocuous fisherman and his family fleeing from completely unwarranted oppression to help save the rightful king of Denmark, and they completely fail to slaughter anyone or even take anyone's land - instead, they quietly build their own little village on the coast and call it Grimsby. And the innocent, fair young woman with a claim to the throne of England is incorporated into the story's justification of his rule as well - only this is the new improved version, and instead of being a widow she is the rightful heir herself, wrongfully dispossessed, and therefore a) there is no other possible male heir who could more legitimately rule England than Havelok, b) England is being OPPRESSED by an EVIL EARL and must be saved and c) Havelok is honour-bound to help his wife to her rightful inheritance, and once there - well, honey, you don't want to have to actually manage the day-to-day RULING, do you? Let me take that off your hands for you.

"William had give [his invasion of England] a coat of respectability by winning papal support. He had claimed at Rome that England was rightly his, that Harold was a perjurer and usurper.... The idea was gaining ground in papal circles that even apparently aggressive wars, if fought in a just and holy cause, could be blessed...." (87) So the Norman invasion was, in a way, a forerunner of the Crusades? It seems odd to think of a Crusade against England, and naturally there would have been enough crucial differences in motivation, propaganda and the complicity of the army to not justify calling it one. But it does sound, from this description, rather like this and possibly other similar papally sanctioned campaigns laid the grounds for the Crusading mentality. I'm going to have to study the Crusades more closely too, aren't I?

"Like all English kings of the twelfth century, [Henry I] was a feudal king in a feudal age." (163) This, of course, is the most astonishing fact of all. Though it is closely followed by the assertion that William I "had nothing of chivalry in the modern sense" (155). I am deeply shocked. This implies that he had only eleventh-century chivalric ideas. How barbaric of him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I eat the air, promise-crammed.

I think I shall have to start reading mediaeval bestiaries.

Here is a beautiful little metaphor that I somehow managed to miss when I did my post on the sins of the voice:

Þe deuel sheweþ hym in þis world in many wise [ways] and liknesse[s] and takeþ hym liknesse [takes on shapes] for to deceyue and bigile wiþ men. And right so doþ þe liyere [liar], and þerfore he fareþ as a butre-flye, þat lyueþ bi [ie, on] þe aier and haþ no þing in hire guttes [her belly] but wynd, and at euery colour þat sche seþ [sees] sche chaungeþ hire owne.[1]

Leaving aside for this post the symbolic application of this to the liar - though the combination of adaptibility and frailty it implies for someone who has to live only on "wynd" fascinates me - I love what this tells us about the mediaeval understanding of a butterfly.

Firstly, she's feminine. This can't be an accident of grammatical gender - it's deliberate on the part of the translator, certainly, given the change from the masculine pronoun for the sinner to the feminine for the butterfly he resembles. And unless the original Middle French had a different noun for butterfly, Lorens would have used the masculine "papillon", so if he also referred to the butterfly as "elle" the usage would have been even more striking. But whether the femininity is the idea of the English translator, of Lorens, of the bestiary he may have consulted or simply a widely spread notion of the insect's nature, it is unflatteringly appropriate. Women were commonly perceived as less stable, less reliable, and of course most had very little physical power and thus had to rely on words. Even their bodies were considered to be less stable than a man's - ever heard of a condition called "wandering womb"? And most women, particularly in the upper classes, did have to change her colours to suit her new situation, because on marrying - often quite young - they woudl be sent forth into a different community, sometimes far from home, even in a different country, and be expected to settle into it and manage whatever wifely duties were appropriate to her situation.

Does this make her a liar? Politic, maybe...

Secondly - and thirdly, since these lump together nicely - butterflies a) eat air and b) change their colour to camouflage. Obviously, neither of these are scientifically accurate, but Lorens isn't really trying to provide an accurate picture of a butterfly here. The butterfly one might see over the hedgerows - which he can't have seen change its colours, because individual butterflies don't - is not the creature under discussion. This butterfly is the allegorical butterfly of the bestiaries, interesting primarily for the reflection it casts on the human spirit under consideration.

But of course, this distinction is too sharp, and implies that people held two separate ideas of "butterfly" in their head. I don't think this is true - I think it's more a case of an ability to subordinate the observable to the symbolic, to not mind or consider significant any differences one might notice in the real butterfly to the allegorical. Even without the aid of allegory, we can today largely consider the koala a soft and cuddly creature who exists mostly for cuddling tourists, and if we do hear those very loud screams and grunts they make in the night, just roll over and mutter "bloody koalas!" before going back to sleep, the socially prevalent image intact.

I have wandered off topic, I think. The connection I meant to make is with this:

King Claudius: How fares* our cousin Hamlet?
Hamlet: Excellent, i'faith, of the chameleon's dish. I eat the air, promise-crammed.** [2]

Hamlet's puns usually require some glossing - certainly he confuses Claudius here - and so I shall add the footnotes the Norton edition provides here:

* How does; Hamlet's response puns on "fare" as food and drink.
** The chameleon was supposed to live on air. Hamlet puns on 'heir', referring to Claudius' insubstantial promise of the succession.

So the chameleon also eats the air. And, of course, the chameleon actually does change colour (though not to camouflage). The allegorical significances of the two animals could have quite an overlap, then; though butterflies, being light and airy and winged, are a more intuitive metaphor for changeability. Might the idea of the butterfly's changing colours be derived from confusion with the chameleon? It could have risen independently, of course - many species of butterfly can be distinguished by little but colour, and most will instinctively seek out resting places against which they will camouflage[3]. My instinct would be to suspect that the ideas may have risen independently, but became strengthened and solidified by occasional association.

Sadly, two quotes aren't enough to unravel a cultural history of allegorical significance for either animal. Clearly research is in order!

[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] Hamlet, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et. al. (London: Norton, 1997), 3.2.84-86.
[3] Even in species where colour varies significantly between individuals - each individual knows where to land to hide itself. And without a mirror!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Save the unicorn!

Just a short post, as I'm sick and tired and not really eager to engage the cerebellum...

Wandering through the blogsphere, I encountered David Badke's post on unicorn capture at his bestiary blog. It contains several manuscript images, all after a pattern: virgin with the unicorn in her lap, man or men slaughtering the helpless beast. Finally, he questions,

And what are we to make of the maiden’s betrayal of the trusting unicorn? Well, we can’t be sure she was in on the trick; maybe she didn’t know the true intent of the hunters. In some illustrations, the maiden seems upset at the killing.

The girl in the image included at this point is indeed reaching out her hand towards the killer in some sort of gesture, perhaps of supplication. It's hard to tell - she also has the unicorn's horn trapped under her arm, effectively preventing it from moving. But on looking back, all the girls (save one) in the images are gesturing.

There are other similarities: like many other similar manuscript illustrations, there seems to be a pattern. In all but one image, the girl and unicorn are on the left side of the painting. The girl always gestures with the hand farthest from the 'camera' - ie, her left hand, except in the one reversed image. Her other hand is on the unicorn, usually on its horn, and in most of the pictures she could be read as restraining the unicorn. In some, the gestures seem to be encouragement to the hunters; in some, reproach or shock, perhaps. The figure of the maiden in this series of images, then, can be seen as expressing a kind of ambivalence to the death of the unicorn: complicit (to varying degrees) in its capture, she may also prefer not to see it actually slaughtered.

There is one striking exception, in the image from Harley MS 4751. Here, the maiden's arms are wrapped firmly around the unicorn, her right hand at the nape of its neck, her left pinning its forelegs to its chest, while she turns her head to smile at the hunters. More than complicit, she is taking an active role in betraying and restraining the unicorn to prevent it from resisting its slaughter. In fact, the way she clasps it to her body is almost sexual, but of course we all know that sexualised women are evil and treacherous, so that's not surprising. If we are to read the unicorn as a Christ analogue, this falls in with some of the more dramatic depictions of either the torments before the crucifixion, or the betrayal of Judas (an embrace for a kiss?).

Anyway. The reason for this post was to add another exception, in the other direction: an image in which the girl was apparently just enjoying a peaceful cuddle with her unicorn when along came a knight with a great big spear to attack it. Again, the girl is to the left and her left hand is the one held out to the knight, but in this instance I think her aversion to the unicorn's death is much clearer. And interestingly, this is the only one in which the unicorn is free. She is not holding it - her hand rests on its head in what can only be a friendly or affectionate gesture, not a restraining one - and its head is turned around so that the long horn is levelled at the knight's chest. Uselessly, of course, as his spear is already in its side, but it's not quite the passively suffering or cruelly betrayed Christ anymore.

Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian MS Douce 366

Monday, November 3, 2008

The joy of Middle English glossaries

They serve a useful purpose: they tell you what words mean.

But they also serve a much more worthy purpose: they give you words out of the context that gives them some kind of sense, leaving them alone and unnaturally exposed and... quaint. It's been so long since I looked at a Middle English word and thought it was quaint. But here:

abayinge: barking. Of course it is. That's what my dog does if people do something suspicious like dare to walk past the house after dark, or if his Samoyed friend next door gets a shave for the summer weather. He does this to hide his baishtnesse (perplexity) and the fact that he is also somewhat adaunted (subdued), and to seem like a misterman (kind of man). I suspect if he were ever to meet a moldewerp (mole), his reaction would be similar.

Now, if only I could work out the html to make a widget that would generate a different Middle English word and definition each time the page was refreshed.

All from the glossary in Avril Henry's edition of the anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's The pilgrimage of the lyfe of the manhode. (Early English Text Society, London: Oxford University Press, 1985), vol. II. Her glosses, of course, relate only to the usage of the words in the text itself.