Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chaucer, out of the mouths (et al) of babes.

Let it be known that 12-day-old Elizabeth is already developing literary opinions. She likes the Knight, is indifferent to the Squire, abhors the Shipman, dribbles at the descriptions of the Franklin's feasts and passes gas at the Cook. Most promising, she gets very excited about the Clerk, waves her arms enthusiastically at the idea of having more books in her room than pretty things and claps her hands to her mouth excitedly at the talk of buying books even without being able to get a benefice (tenure?). Let us hope she doesn't emulate him so far as to borrow money for books and forget to pay it back.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Choices, challenges and chance in the first part of Dryden's Conquest of Granada

Alright, so time to 'fess up: I am studying a Restoration course this semester and am thus not always thinking about the mediaeval. So I am having non-mediaeval thoughts sometimes. Such as about The Conquest of Granada.

I like to think I'm still not a terrible person?

The first part of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada was written in a society regaining its confidence after the upheavals of the Civil Wars, the Protectorate and the Restoration. It depicts a nation besieged from without, blithely (and wrongly) confident in its own power despite strife and divisions within. However, Dryden does not focus on the city as a direct analogue for English society in the past generation. Instead he explores the human motivations behind each character’s shifts of loyalty that destabilise their society, challenging his audience to self-analysis in a way that perhaps they could not have stood five years before. Almanzor and Lyndaraxa stand out from the general confusion, not for their constancy, but for the control that they alone manage to retain over their own power of choice.

The play opens to an image of a society perfectly ordered, or perfectly controlled. Powerful men – the king and the patriarchs of the leading families – sit in luxury and discuss the day’s games, a mediaeval-style tournament of male prowess and display (under the eyes of the ladies, naturally), with some fashionable local colour in the form of Spanish bulls. As in any era, the expensive and' extravagantly organised games are a display and proof of centralised power; and naturally, as the King expects, the heroes of the establishment[1] affirm their superiority over their hypermasculine opponents. The only catch is that the audience doesn’t see it. Uninvolved in the off-stage action, the audience’s point of view is limited to that of the character-turned-narrator, who thereby asserts his control of the events and world portrayed. The spectator relies on the perceptions of the most interested parties - and their complacent view of their world is soon dispelled by the “confus’d noise within” (I.I.98) that signals the beginning of civil disorder.

The eruption of combatants onto the stage – shocking after the elegant inaction and controlled, distant violence of the preceding speeches – exposes the flaws in Boabdelin’s model of kingship. In his world view, his authority and the system that sustains it are built of rock, not of people: an independent structure that stands regardless of the differences of mere mortals. Magnificent though he may be initially in confronting the armed mobs, his words have no effect because he does not realise the possibility of his subjects having opinions and agendas of their own, nor the necessity of addressing these to resolve the cause of the conflict. To manage the passions of a nation a king must surely first acknowledge them, but the competing hatreds exchanged across him – murders, superiority of family claims, racial or religious contamination - pass by unnoticed. It is his very insistence on absolute authority rather than disputation that causes the situation to escalate, recalling Charles I’s stubborn obliviousness to the depth of the currents, until the water around his stately galleon churned visibly white. Almanzor’s challenge (“I alone am king of me” etc, I.I.206), predicated on individualised honour and choice rather than state-harnessed honour and obedience, is incomprehensible to Boabdelin, alien to his stone-built tower of a world, and consequently unanswerable.

Boabdelin’s tower, however, is soon shaken and divided by the factionalism of civil war, prompting a flurry of about-turns from almost every major character. Abdalla rebels, Abdelmelech vacillates, Boabdelin throws his lot in with just one clan of his empire, and Abenamar and Selin turn against their respective children, who both abandon filial obedience for love. Rather than let these instances simply pile up, Dryden links them with imagery of wind and water, shifting, insubstantial and helpless. Memorably, Almanzor calls Boabdelin a “weathercock of State”, who “stands so high, with so unfix’t a mind, / Two factions turn him with each blast of wind” (III.I.10-12). Abdalla applies this idea to humanity more generally when he laments the insubstantial nature of “frail reason... kick’d up in the Air / While sence weighs down the Scale”: human conscience is too easily “born away: And forc’d to count’nance its own Rebels sway” (III.I.58-63). The same imagery recurs throughout the play, undermining each individual’s attempts to explain away their decisions and changes. The effect of this is to attribute the mutability not to the direct cause of each occasion, but to basic human nature, subject to chance.

The first major defection, Abdalla’s, is also the one Dryden examines most closely, exposing his ongoing fascination with the interior reasonings of these changes. It is initiated by Lyndaraxa’s half-promise to renege on her affections for Abdelmelech, and cemented by the excuses offered him by one of Boabdelin’s strongest subjects. Abdalla’s own consciousness of the moral implications of his decision (II.I.174-253) makes him look curiously helpless. He portrays himself as “tost” like a helpless ship between “love and vertue” (II.I.184), opposing internal forces which will decide his fate for him without the possibility of his own intervention. His plea to Zulema to second his flagging honour so it might “renue the fight” (II.I.189) also seems to absolve him of any personal responsibility for his decision, and Zulema’s persuasive arguments against that honour conveniently finish the job. After the event, he shows no hesitation in laying the blame on Lyndaraxa, using the language of the scorned chivalric lover (III.I.72-74) and of chauvinistic mistrust:

This enchanted place,
Like Circe’s Isle, is peopled with a Race
Of dogs and swine, yet, though their fate I know,
I look with pleasure and am turning too. (III.I.95-98)
To cast Lyndaraxa as Circe implicitly turns Abdalla into unfortunate victim made bestial through womanly wiles, incapable of honour or conscious decision; but it also implies that all of Granada is peopled by men who cannot retain their shape, or lack the moral drive to wish to.

Abdelmelech and Abdalla are equally helpless in their inability to renounce Lyndaraxa. Despite the knowledge of her changeability, each lacks the power to choose to turn away, or to take any other path than the one down which she drives them. Abdelmelech, for example, perceives that her heart “was never fix’d, nor rooted deep in Love” (III.I.164); but, through her skilful handling, he is begging permission within twenty-five lines to pledge his own constancy to the inconstant target, while Lyndaraxa mocks him with the possibility of his own future defection (“You would be perjur’d if you should I fear”, III.I.190). By the time he presses Lyndaraxa to run away with him as “proof of love to me” (IV.II.36), the city is a mess, Almanzor has changed sides and the tides of war twice, and the audience is as conscious as Lyndaraxa of the fruitlessness of any such proof. In this world as presented, no person can be proven, and a person who trusts in such proof is left vulnerable and manipulable.

Lyndaraxa plays to reserve the moment of choice only because she is more conscious of this fact than are the men around her: she admits freely to herself that “I my self scarce my own thoughts can ghess, / So much I find ‘em varied by success” (IV.II.4-5). She speaks the unacknowledged creed of almost every other character in the play when she declares that she “will be constant yet, if Fortune can” (IV.II.7), consciously placing her own steadfastness in the power of that most fickle of deities. By contrast, each man appears to believe his current loyalty to be the only admissible possibility, leaving himself subject to Fortune’s whims.

Almanzor is an exception within this general turmoil. The difference lies not in his stability of loyalties – he is the most infamously changeable character of all – but in his consciousness of the power of his own choices. Instead of reacting to changes in Fortune, Almanzor causes them: if Boabdelin is a weathercock turned by each passing wind, Almanzor turns himself, knowing the wind will swing to follow him. Initially, Almanzor seems to stand in opposition to human fickleness. On his first appearance, he appears to provide a stable moral centre to the play, disproving the supremacy of the old regime and epitomising a new system based on personal honour and conscience. He stands up to the irrational judgements of a tyrannical king (I.I.204-231), advocates responsibility with power (I.I.218-20), notes the weakness in the current system (I.I.226-29, I.I.285-86, III.I.10-12) and offers to fix it by pinning the weathercock with his own immovable weight:

The word which I have giv’n shall stand like Fate;
But now he shall not veer: my word is past:
I’ll take his heart by th’roots, and hold it fast. (III.I.9-14)
With these words, the king seems but a butterfly, weak and movable: Almanzor, staunch and strong, standing for eternal principle against self-interest and factions’ advice. But Abdalla’s request immediately following unsettles this comforting impression. Remaining firm to his own individual “word”, Almanzor commits himself to the ultimate social disruption of civil war. As various characters comment, including Almanzor, from that point he takes on Fortune’s role (“I am your fortune; but am swift like her”, IV.I.30), and his actions govern the consequent reactions of the remaining characters. Almanzor is characterised not as a changeable subject to the vagaries of the Fortune’s wind, but as the agent of change, steering the fortunes of others “as winds drive storms before ‘em in the sky” (III.I.526).

The change is not in Almanzor, it should be noted, but in the audience’s growing realisation of their inability to trust any moral advocate, no matter how charismatic. The terms in which he agrees to help Abdalla (III.I.21-28), and announces to Boabdelin his intention to continue to change sides as he chooses (IV.I.54-55), are consistent with his first glorious speeches that win the stage to him. His very first line (“I cannot stay to ask which cause is best; / But this is so to me because opprest”, I.I.128-29), despite its consciousness of the arbitrary nature of any such judgement, shows a determination to retain control of the moral context of his decisions – and potentially the power to change his choice at a later date, if the first judgement should prove erroneous. By consciously assuming the power and responsibility for his shifts in loyalty, and acknowledging the possibility of Fortune changing, Almanzor reserves to himself the power of change rather than the Fortune-shaped reactions of his compatriots.

The sheer number of these human changes, once realised, makes the whole world appear mutable. The city of Granada has little concrete existence of its own. Unlike the village and houses of Sir Samuel Tuke’s The Adventures of Five Hours or the streets and rooms and islands of Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine, the writing of Conquest evokes no firm sense of locale. Most scenes could be set indoors or outdoors, in a hall or garden or a street, or on a blank stage. The strongest scene-painting in the play is the opening description of the bullfight (I.I.1-98), an event which takes place offstage and therefore exists only in the words of its narrators. While a hypothetical set might provide some context and colour, its effect is little next to the spoken word: the theatre’s lack of a cohesive authorial voice ensures that in most plays the characters and their words are the world. Juliet’s orchard is vividly alive, regardless of staging choices. But Granada, as a city, is barely there: she has her only substance in the minds of her inhabitants, and she is soon forgotten. As a society, she is only as substantial as a group illusion. In the first act, by questioning certain fundamental issues of social organisation - the proper nature of government and kingship (I.I.194-288), the right to inheritance and title (I.I.292-346) – Dryden destabilises the social structure binding the individual characters together. With these things recognised as insubstantial, the characters themselves are left to hold their world together unassisted. As each wanders off whithersoever he (or potentially she) would, the whole of social structure becomes illusory.

Despite the gloominess of such a point of view, the final vision, for its first audience, need not have been so bleak. For those who made the comparison between the events in Granada and the storms of the last generation, there remains sufficient distance in Dryden’s writing that they need not have assumed Granada’s downfall was England’s. There is no consistent parallel between any character in the play and any on England’s recent political stage, though there are occasional passing similarities. Granada’s character is sufficiently foreign, especially with the real Christians hovering at the gates, that the audience could be in no danger of identifying themselves completely with the Moors who comprise her population. Dryden challenges his audience to consider the nature, causes and moral implications of the changes humans make under pressure, but England is not Granada. England has come through the wars, is not doomed, and can consider these questions in retrospect, without the danger being pulled to pieces from within.


[1] Almanzor, the triumphant stranger, is potentially a threat, and will so prove; but at this point the speakers claim him as their hero, the epitome of those qualities that they treasure in the world their words create. Though Abenamar recognises him as "more than man" (I.I.48), he appears to consider it only a matter of degree: the challenge implicit in this difference is not recognised.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Conan Doyle exorcises the Restoration

So, definitely not mediaeval.  Maybe mediaevalist, though, or at least following the same lines of thought. 

I’m half-TAing for three classes, one of which is on the genre of the mystery novel.  Unsurprisingly, it contains The Hound of the Baskervilles.  In fact, I’ve a bundle of essays in my bag beside me on the bus right now on how The Hound is both Gothic and anti-Gothic.  The basic intent of the set question is that the story contains Gothic elements and creates an atmosphere highly suggestive of the supernatural, cashing in on the thrill inherent in that genre, but has it both ways in that cold science and human agency carry the day. But I attended the lecture just now, and found myself questioning what Gothic actually means in this context.

The prof taking the course highlighted certain elements in the story that he regards as particularly Gothic – the emphasis laid on the age of Baskerville Hall (at one point he called it mediaeval), the animal savagery  in the face of Selden (the convict hiding up on the moors) – without explaining just what made them Gothic in the society in which Conan Doyle was writing.  The age of Baskerville Hall – its decrepitude? Suggestions of a dark past? The (probably figurative) ghosts of past ages of who-knows-what morality? The fact that the sheer size of the house (temporally as well as spatially) suggests ominous and unknowable secrets? What was it in the figure of Selden that would give the average reading Victorian a frisson?  Both, I think, are linked in the story that initiates the drama, the 18th century manuscript telling a story of the 17th, the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville.

The prof in question pointed, again, to certain aspects of this story as Gothic, and again I would have preferred to shift his emphasis.  He spoke of Hugo Baskerville as the Gothic villain because, as a lord of the manor, he ought to take a paternal attitude towards his dependants and he fails rather spectacularly in this.  He also pointed out the final vision of the hellhound lifting its bloodied jaws from Hugo’s throat, and the horror of his erstwhile companions.  Now, I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a Gothic story needs a good old bad-to-the-bone villain who epitomises the worst of humanity, or even something beyond the human, and also a good shock of gore.  But ingredient don’t make atmosphere; and for me the Victorian terror lies elsewhere.  The strongest Gothic moment in that tale-within-a-tale, so far as I’m concerned, is the moment when Hugo Baskerville rides off ahead of his companions into the dark on the moor, surrounded by his dogs, baying for the blood of his hapless (female, naturally) victim.  There we have simultaneously the moment when human darkness turns over completely to the diabolical, and the terror of the darkness and the unknown in the dark, of what is happening ahead on the moors, until that moment of shock and revelation when the hound raises its head.  And Hugo?  Well – he’s set very precisely in historical time.  He’s a Restoration libertine. 

The libertinism of the Restoration, of course, was looked back on with varying degrees of romanticism and dutifully appalled fascination by later generations.  Filtered through Conan Doyle’s eyes, the Restoration (in the person of Hugo Baskerville) stands in for the darkest and cruellest in English history, a time of the most shocking and unmentionable drunken depravities known to man (or fiend)[1].  The age of the house is partly sinister because it provides a link to the deeds of this man, the ethos of this time, in the vast and unsettling halls that swallow you up in visions of old carousing and predation, the darkness beneath the surface.  And there we have Selden – the animal in man, the werewolf, the vampire, the monster hidden under the veneer of civilisation that Hugo Baskerville became when he consigned his soul and body to the devil if he might only overtake the girl, clapped his spurs to his horse and sped off with his hounds.  The modern villain of the novel, Stapleton, is associated through his own actions with both the devil-invocation and uncontained sexuality of Conan Doyle’s libertine era.  In creating the devil dog, he consciously calls up the “devil” to do his work, just as did his ancestor Hugo[2], and his adultery and exploitation of the two women in his life turns them both into interchangeable victims (though not so helpless as the nameless damsel).   Plus there’s the tiny issue of gruesome murder, of course.

The Gothic need not recall the Restoration in its every occurrence, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that in Hound of the Baskervilles Conan Doyle does relate it to a time period and corresponding (perceived) historical mindset.  As such, it turns into a metaphor for the terrors within, the supernatural and diabolical that give rise to the werewolf but are always ultimately human. Holmes defeats these elements of the story and proves them false by the powers of Reason and Science and Logic – the thinking man’s triumph over the savage.

There we are – I have convinced myself.   

I don’t say this in criticism of the prof in question.  This is all, after all, beyond the scope of the lecture.  But certain of his statements and omissions started me thinking – and that’s certainly something to thank him for!


[1] Which just goes to show how sex-obsessed the Victorians really were, because only part of the libertine movement was about sex.  A large part of it was about freedom of religion, too, while Conan Doyle’s vision completely excludes the divine and is scrabbled over by greedy fingers of the devil.

[2] Though with differences, necessitated by the physicality of the events in the real world.  Both men intend to run their victims to death, probably by setting their dog(s) on them – in Hugo’s case his real dogs never get a look-in, as something far scarier than them comes along. Both the damsel and Sir Charles Baskerville die of fright after fleeing their pursuer, rather than being mauled.  And Hugo calls on the devil to help him catch the damsel, while Stapleton builds his own faux devil, and presumably, in doing so, gives the real one his soul once his body is sucked down into the mire (devoured by his master below!).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Alcohol: shame and usefulness.

So, how do the rest of you find it? This whole, brain-doesn't-switch-off, over-activity-of-the-grey-matter, how-do-you-stop-thinking-all-the-time thing? You see, alcohol may be frowned on generally, but it can actually be really useful when it comes to relaxing. Whether it be because you're practising your vocal exercises for a singing exam, and your mother is disturbed and distressed by your confession that it's far easier when you've had a half-cup of wine but it makes damn sense because it switches off the instinctive muscular tightening and clamping that is sabotaging your performance through over-thinking everything and the inability to trust your body to support your performance unsupervised; or because your stomach is cramping horribly because, well, that's what it does once a month, and your body doesn't consult you first to ask whether you've got, say, a paper due to be delivered (performed) tomorrow and you just need to turn brain and muscle off because you've done as much as you can for the time; or just because it's the end of the day and your brain hasn't realised yet and keeps doing interesting things with texts which, yes, are interesting but I'm trying to relax now and go to sleep please shut up...

... Am I alone in thinking this is somehow shameful? Or am I alone in thinking it's maybe, within moderate limits, acceptable?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teaching the Glossa Ordinaria

No, I’m not.  Though I may be teaching the second half of a class on sci-fi literature tomorrow (or possibly next week), with two days’ notice (or nine), and no, I have no idea why.  Or on what.  Hoorah for improvisation skills! 

But we’re looking at the Glossa Ordinaria on the Song of Songs in one of my classes (ed. Mary Dove, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004), and have been asked to think about how we might use it in a general cultural history course – what we might pick out from it for students, how would we read other texts through it, what we would pair with it.

Well, first I choose to disregard that ‘general cultural history’ stipulation, or at least set it aside briefly to assume a very long course in which I could spend a lot of time delving into the mediaeval and playing Disprove The Myths.  The myth in question would be the general perception of the Middle Ages being a time in which everyone was miserable and hated themselves for being lowly dirty worms and thought about boring religious stuff all the time.  I would then throw this and some saints’ lives – from the Gilte Legende, possibly, but I’d make a goodly effort to get Christina the Astonishing in there, because who doesn’t love stories about women flinging themselves in ovens and perching on church rooftops while their families hang around below looking increasingly hassled and waving the shackles enticingly?  And that’s rather the point – whether or not everyone thought about religion all the time, the cultural spectrum included under ‘religion’ was just a tad broader than nowadays, and needn’t entail either boredom or self-flagellation (unless you’re into that, of course).  Meanwhile, offering two such different text – academic/popular, analytic/narrative, Latin/vernacular, Biblical/apocryphal, high-flown/good rolicking fun – is a great way to smash that idea of a homogenous huddling “everyone”, which is part and parcel with the idea of Dark Ages. 

And what they do have in common is revealing too.  Others may come up with some other overreaching unifying feature, but for me it would be passion.  Legend or gloss, this matter is far from boring to its authors.  The glossators on the Song of Songs don’t try to quash the sensual delight in their text – they use it, glory in it, redirect it towards Christ and heaven.  It doesn’t require excuses, just translation: the passion itself is entirely appropriate.  The theological aspects of the Gilte Legende aren’t nearly so sublime.  They tend to feel more generic, more obligatory; but the same enthusiasm resides elsewhere in the stories.  People’s more everyday hopes, terrors, delights, schadenfreude, secret kinks, all there in much more accessible format, what entertains and what instructs.

Of course, one could easily turn that into a chapter in a general cultural history course anyway.  Continue on to the Reformation and throw some Thomas More at them, or better, the hotly debated religious arguments used in Henry VIII’s attempts to get under Anne Boleyn’s skirts; consider the implications of Hamlet senior’s ghost apparently confirming the existence of Purgatory; look at some of the inflammatory pamphlets printed about the Catholic/Irish plots during the English Civil Wars.  Just because religion permeated (almost) every aspect of people’s lives doesn’t make it boring: generally the opposite, I’d say, because people aren’t good at being bored.  They make things interesting.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Gilte Legende and disjointed saints.

There are the saints everyone knows. They tend to have a well-defined life story, usually set in a particular place and time in history, a collection of miracles done before and/or after their death, and a particular personality and purview that leads to them being called on for certain things (patron or not).

Then there are the saints who are essentially a collection of folklore and local associations, or blends of one and another, Christianised versions of a couple of incidents from classical mythology with some half-remembered local story mixed in and tacked on to the name of someone who might be a regular saint or might be a duplicate or no one at all, really. And these ones rather tend to fail on the whole coherent narrative front.

Most of the stories in the Gilte Legende are actually somewhere between these two categories. Nicholas, for example, is well known and well defined and doesn’t stand much danger of being confused with anyone else. But the events of his life are more a series of vaguely connected events than any coherent narrative; and over a third of the space devoted to him in the Gilte Legende[1] is a conglomeration of miracles[2] attributed to him that took place after his death, which are essentially two stories repeated with slight variants, or at least miracles organised along two common themes (whence his popular personality):

  • A Christian debtor attempts to cheat a patient Jew, who brings him to judgement. The Christian hands the Jew a staff, swears that he has given the Jew the money he owes him, then receives his staff back. He goes free, but is hit by a cart which kills him and breaks open his staff to reveal the gold inside. Men advise the Jew to take the money, but he refuses and says that he will only do so if the dead man should come to life again by the power of St Nicholas. This duly happens, and the Jew is christened.
  • A Jew takes an image of the saint and keeps it in his house, charging it to keep watch over his goods. When thieves break into the house and steal everything but the statue, the Jew “bette [the image] and tormented it cruelli” (Nicholas ll. 244-45), and the wounded saint, appearing to the thieves and berating them for getting him thumped, so terrifies them that they return everything they stole. And everyone lives happily ever after – ie, the thieves become righteous and the Jew becomes a Christian.
  • Nicholas raises a dead child to life, after the sorrowing father berates him for neglecting to protect a family who was so devoted to the saint.
  • A man prays to St Nicholas that he might have a son, promising to give the son and a gold cup to the church. The child being of age, the father has a cup made, decides he likes it too much to give it up, has another of equal weight and value made, and offers that instead. He travels to the church by boat, and commands his son to bring him water in the first cup, upon which boy and cup fall overboard and are lost. Arriving, he offers the second cup, but it is thrown down from the altar three times. Then the child appears, with the first cup, and claims to have been saved from the sea by St Nicholas. The father, rather prudently, offers up both cups.
  • A child is born, again by Nicholas’ intervention, and his father builds a chapel to Nicholas in gratitude. The king takes the child into service, and on St Nicholas’ feast day the child misses his home, knowing how his father would be celebrating it. Standing before the king and holding a rich cup he bemoans this, and the king declares that “for ought þat þy Nicholas can doo þou schalte abide here now” (ll. 305-6). And of course Nicholas immediately poofs him back home to his father. Or possibly he was born in Normandy and kidnapped by the sultan while overseas (Crusading? Serves him right), who liked to beat him, particularly on Christian saints’ days, for some reason. But praying to St Nicholas on that saint’s day, and thinking of the joy at his house on that day, he awakes to find himself in his father’s house again.
Despite the fact that he apparently has popular, wide-spread, firm associations for many people, Nicholas remains thematically disjointed. The Jew has little to do with the child, and neither has any obvious parallel in the story of his life. One can argue similarities between the miracles. For example, the theme of guarding possessions and the possibility of covetousness appears in both Jew stories and the second child story, and the cup appears in the third but has lost its narrative function. The grieving father in the first child story berates Nicholas in a way that seems similar to both Jews exhorting Nicholas to return them their possessions, providing a link to the idea of the child as property to protect to the other stories. But the connection is a tenuous one and no more convincing than, I daresay, one could make between almost any collection of stories attributed to multiple saints.

Saint Nicholas, however, looks like a picture of unity compared to Saint Makary. Here’s what he gets up to:

  • It begins “Makarie went oute of a place of desert and entred [in] the sepulture of a dede man and leyed his hede downe vpon the dede bodi in stede of a pilow” (St Macarius ll. 1-3). No, there is no context or motivation or preamble – why do you ask? A fiend with nothing better to do decided to scare him and made the dead body speak. Makary “dred hym nothyng” (l. 7), but instead beat the body up, which made the fiends flee and is probably exactly what Jesus would have done.
  • This one time Makary was heading for his cell and met a fiend who told him he couldn’t attack him because of his humility.
  • When Makary was feeling troubled by temptations, he used to take a sack of gravel and go walking in the desert, of which he said to Theosebe (no, we aren’t told who he is) “I slee hym that sleith me” (l. 22).
  • Once he met a fiend who was tempting his brethren with wine. And he asked the fiend which of them was succumbing, and the fiend told him Theotist. And so Makary talked to him and told him that wasn’t such a good idea, and next time he met the fiend, the fiend was rather piqued that Theotist was now holier than all of them.
  • Once he found a severed head and had a chat to it about where its soul was.
  • While going into a “ferre desert” (l. 50) he dropped rosary beads to mark his way, probably figuring that this sack of gravel was really heavy and the birds wouldn’t eat rosary beads. But a devil gathered them up and put them next to his head, which just goes to show that birds are secretly evil.
  • Once he advised a brother who was considering leaving his cell not to do so!
  • Once he killed a flea for biting him, or possibly a fly, and then repented and went to live naked in a desert so lots of flies could bite him.

See what I mean? The only common threads are that sometimes he talks to dead people and that he likes a nice masochistic stroll in the desert. I think I like him.

The entry for St Julian the Hospitaller is disjointed in a rather different way [3]. The author is confronted with the fact that there are, in fact, six or possibly seven different Julians that his audience may be familiar with (not to mention St Juliana), and the only way they can be distinguished is by their stories. So he tells all the stories, while insisting that his focus is on the Hospitaller – although only 64 lines out of 218 are actually about that man. To summarise:

  • Julian was bishop of Emans, and people claim he was Simon the leper that Jesus healed. And people say that this is the Julian that people pray to for safe harbour, but they would be wrong.
  • There was another Julian of Auvergne, who was beheaded by the provost Crispin.
  • There was also another Julian who was the brother of… well, a Julian. They built a church and made people stop and help them work on it and smote people who tried to trick their way out of it.
  • Then there was the Saint Julian that we were going to talk about, who killed his own mother and father out of ignorance when they were his guests. Which is why we pray to him for safe harbour. He saw the error of his ways, you see.
  • Also there was Julian the Apostate who did nasty things to Christians. But he was not a saint. Saint Basil smote him. Do not get any of the other Julians confused with him. No, not even the one who killed his guests who were also his parents. He didn’t mean to.

And of course, when dealing with saints, there’s always the really literal meaning of disjointed. One could probably make a very complicated connecting argument out of the disjointed nature of the tales reflecting the torn-up bits of martyrs scattered hither and yon, sometimes over an entire country (or beyond, thank you Pardoner). It’d be a bit of a reach, because it assumes some kind of overreaching cultural intent behind these stories – authorial intent pretty much goes out the window when you’re just collecting a bunch of stories from all over the place and trying to work out how they fit together without changing them much.

Although, come to think of it, from one angle it’s not that far-fetched – if it’s about possession and example, which end up being the same thing, just with different intents of proof. As for example: the physical limbs of a martyr (or traitor, as I wrote about once before) can be strewn over a wide range to provide an example to as many people as possible, from the point of view of their enemy, and to prevent their reassembly come Judgement Day. But for the sympathetic, or the faithful, their very triumph over the latter obstacle is proof of their power, and their power is by the same token disseminated over a wider range, letting more villages and provinces lay claim to a bit of a saint - or a bit of the saint’s stories. And in many cases, the post-mortem perambulations of the persecuted in popular legend may be due precisely to the pressures of possession – we have a bit of his arm bone in our reliquary, his head was carried through this very town on the way to its burial, Bertha’s great-grandmother had a friend who touched the cloak of the person carrying his ashes towards Rome. And, well, if so many people from all over the place can lay claim to him, he (or his bits) must have really got about.

Of course, in many cases, it’s just that the stories were never whole in the first place. And that cutting fictional people up is fun.


[1] Following Hamer’s two-volume edition, EETS 327-328, 2006-2007. Of the entry on St Nicholas, ll. 1-199 are his life, 200-319 later miracles.

[2] What's the collective noun for miracles?

[3] The actual story of Julian’s life, when we reach it, is conversely as perfectly structured a narrative as one could wish for. I may look at it in another post.