Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Temporal identity

So I’m returning to this idea again, which I first floated back in September over here, of temporal identity. I’ve still not really seen it explored anywhere, but I do think it’s potentially a valuable methodological approach. 
The idea is to interrogate texts for a sense of identity defined with significant attention to one’s place in time.  This identity may be personal, or attached to membership of a small group (family, parish, social stratum), or on a larger scale approaching national or universal.  It may also involve the deliberate exclusion of other groups (we are more advanced / more traditional than they are), or an attempt to forge a more inclusive future.  It may be unconscious, assumed, or defensive of something that ought to be generally assumed; or it may be deliberately constructive of a particular historical moment.
For example, we know that (broadly speaking) some Renaissance texts could be found to define themselves deliberately against an immediate mediaeval past, particularly certain aspects of it that they found repellent or obstructive, and simultaneously assume to themselves similarities with a more distant classical past, in an attempt to construct (in collaboration with other people now) a more idealised future. 
Millenarians (which I know nothing about) could also be an interesting case in point, as investing (or professing to invest) an exceptional degree of identity in one clearly defined future point, beyond which there would be no future (or would there? how does divine/infernal eternity relate to this?).  But to what extent do they (individually - I doubt they were ever really a body as such) acknowledge a debt to the Biblical and classical traditions on which they were drawing, or relate the coming final moment to the sinful actions of the distant past, immediate past or present?  How did they understand the effects of one moment in time, or one age, on another, on themselves, on the world around them, on the moments to come?
Other potentially interesting fields of investigation:
- On a smaller scale, and prompted just now by thoughts of millenarians’ focus on a specific immediate future point: what about individual testimony within individual lives? such as a pregnant woman awaiting childbirth, if such a testimony exists? Could we extend this sort of investigation to such an intimate, complicated test subject?
- Genealogy. In every age that I’ve investigated there is a degree of interest in one’s ancestry to be traced, especially amongst the nobility for whom it can prove land claims and precedents.  We could therefore perhaps study it across several centuries to ask what it can reveal about changing temporal identities.  For example, who was interested in it at any given time? 1066 and the next generation or two doubtless provided a crisis in England for both the locals and the invaders in terms of tracing one’s bloodline and preserving a connection with the past – are there similar moments later on? What effect did it have? Was it exclusively or primarily a noble (or gentle) pastime until the late mediaeval/early modern times? and is pastime the correct word? How and when did it spread, and to whom? What was it used for? proof? of what? to what ends? And what could prove it? The Earl of Warren’s sword with which his great-grandfather helped William invade England? A diagram on paper shaped like a tree whose roots are literally in the bowels of William the Conqueror?
- What about ‘progress’? Whose idea is that? And I mean that in a continuous way – not ‘where did it originate’, which is not a helpful question, but ‘in any given generation, was the idea of progress present, and was it positive or negative according to any given member or group in a given population’.  Of what did it consist, where were the emphases laid, and did it give any sense of a continuum in which the past, via the present, informed the future? or was the past being discarded?
- Is there any particular polemic associated, at any given point, with temporal identity? Is it continuous enough to trace any sort of history of it? To what extent do people use temporal concepts as insults (and do they in that context have an implicit identity-forming function by contrast)? I imagine, for example, this might come up a lot in theological/academic argument – accusing someone of being outmoded, or of abandoning auctoritas, places a value judgement on intellectual temporalities (or rather, lends them a temporal angle).  Or to look at it another way, the age of an individual – Chaucer’s Januarie/May repeats a well-established pattern of despising the body of the aged in comparison with the fresh body of youth, but of course there is more to the discourse of age than that, and the compliment might often be reversed (wisdom of age vs folly of youth, etc).  And how does this alter when someone has died, is past?
- And of course, most interesting from my point of view – how does a person’s perception of their individual relation to history, of their age’s place within a broader (divine?) scheme, of their duty to a future time (and/or present patron) affect their perception of their immediate task when they sit down to write a chronicle, write history? And what else gets in the way?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lego librum – who is the reader?

John of Salisbury was on the brink of distinguishing three meanings for the verb legere, but then leaves it at two.  He says that the word ‘to read’ is equivocal, indicating either the activity of a teacher reading out and a listening learner (‘docentis et discentis’) or that of studying what is written for oneself (‘per se scrutantis scripturam’). John therefore refers to three different persons (teacher, learner, individual reader), but lumps the first two together by seeing them under prelectio, the communication between teacher and pupil, as distinct from lectio, individual reading. By thus squeezing out the learner-listener (discens) from the usage of legere, John has confined himself to a double function of this verb.  He therefore remains content with the suggested distinction between prelegere (to read aloud to others) and legere (to read for oneself).[1]


That distinction that John of Salibury doesn't quite commit to is actually quite an interesting one if it's fully articulated. And if it isn't, that is in itself interesting. When we analyse mediaeval reading patterns, do we consider locutor and audens to be one single unit, the lector? When we read a mediaeval reference to a specific act of reading, does the author of the reference consider them as a single unit, and if not, where is his/her focus? To whom is the verb legere given - where does the credit lie?

If we consider (or our hypothetical author considers) the speaker to be the reader, we foreground the skill of reading - in other words, we buy into (or examine) the cultural stratification around that ability that was for so long the closely guarded property and defining characteristic of clerics. If we consider the hearer to be the reader[2], we foreground instead the act of comprehension - involvement in a specific moment rather than intellectual accomplishment, internal analytical processes rather than external processing - and open possibilities for the meaning of 'legere' approaching, for example, spiritual contemplation.  This might also tie in, depending on period and author, with the opposition of mouth and ear, and the concerns over positive and negative functions of speech.

I don't suggest that either is more correct - I simply think it's a distinction that is valuable to bear in mind when reading mediaeval accounts of such moments, to see which figure/idea is foregrounded by the author, or to reserve our own ability to analyse the scene from both angles.



[1] D. H. Green, Women Readers in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007, 5-6.  Internal quotes are John of Salisbury, Metalogicon I 24 (qtd in Green, Medieval listening and reading: The primary reception of German literature 800-1300, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 337 n. 155).

[2] The speaker may also be a hearer, and thus a reader under this definition, but not invariably.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Arma Christi, pedii alii

I visited the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) a few days ago, and don’t know why I’ve never got around to it before.  It is a very good place to spend an afternoon.  Though their mediaeval collection is small, and mostly comprised of worn wooden statuary[1], there were a few late mediaeval paintings that I spent some time peering at curiously, much to the amusement of the curator (apparently they weren’t the ones most people were interested in).

The most interesting one was this: 

Hans Memling. Man of Sorrows in Virgin’s Arms. Flemish, 1475-79. Oil and gold leaf on wood panelling. At the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne).

It’s quite small – less in height than the length of my forearm – so despite the vivid colours, no one else was much interested in it.  But the scarlet particularly is very brilliant (less so in the image here than in real life), and the expressions of the faces – especially those of the heads scattered around the background – are very vivid and characterful.  Mary and Jesus are a little more conventional, and less colourful, save for the blood.

What struck me about this painting was, firstly, that it’s an arma Christi, a convention (or genre, really) that I thought was rather outdated by this time (though it’s way out of my field, so I could be very wrong).  I was also curious to see that the rather brief information on it didn’t mention that, or give any explanation of the visual conventions to which Memling appeals. 

The second curious thing is that, among the traditional objects of torture – the whipping-post, the flail, the spear, the hammer and nails – are positioned the heads, hands and feet of the multitude who jeered him.  The hands particularly are interesting, positioned variously to pinch, punch, slap, whip and jeer (one seems to be making a rude gesture?), as if to cover all the insults that a hand might inflict on a man.  The fragmented bodies of the crowd become weapons against Christ, and therefore for him, extensions (by implication) of his own body – literally his arma.  And the vivid personalisation of every face (from many different professions and social ranks, given their clothing) implicates and involves them as individuals, not as tokens.  I don’t know how common this sort of image was, but I haven’t seen it before.  Is anyone else familiar with this as a tradition?

All in all, it seems to me that Memling was using more recent techniques – the vivid colours, the realistic portraiture – to reinvigorate much older images – not only the arma Christi itself, but the fascination with and veneration of the bodily fluids.  Christ catches and cups the blood running down his side, drawing attention to it and perhaps beginning the process of converting it to a relic. The blood on his head and shoulder is echoed and reinforced both by the duplication of the colour in the costumes of the crowd, and by the pure, clear tears running down Mary’s cheeks.

If this is deliberate (and if I’m not misreading completely), perhaps Memling is trying to draw his viewers into the picture, to show real “modern” people as the tormentors of a traditionally recognisable Christ, to convey that very personal “we are his tormentors, we daily wound him with our sins” message.

Incidentally, in hunting the web for the image (before I thought to go to the NGV’s website) I found this:

At the Capilla Real (Granada); image from Wikipedia.

Same artist, same period, but apparently much less expensive production – the duller colours may be due to less careful preservation, but the gold leaf background is lacking.  Interestingly, Mary’s headscarf is much less ornate, and Jesus’ hair less beautifully brushed.  The combination of these factors would lead me to guess that this one came first, and the NGV version was, perhaps, commissioned by a richer patron after he/she saw the Capilla Real painting. And that might have been a good reason to change those two religious-looking folk in the top left corner to something a little less politically suggestive.
Also, this one has a rooster (on top of the whipping post, where there’s another head in the NGV painting), presumably he who crew three times; which makes this version more of a retelling of the Passion than a focus on the arma.


[1] There was one curious carving of St John the Baptist, which I puzzled over for a while – I couldn’t work out whether he was meant to be wearing the skin of a goat or a dragon.  I remembered lately it’s meant to be a camel skin he wears, but this one had dragon scales, goat hooves and a reptilian but goat-shaped head.  Apparently very odd depictions of unfamiliar animals aren’t unique to the illustrators of bestiaries!

Monday, January 4, 2010

The fiend as God’s sergeant (part 2/2)

And if the fiend functions as God’s – executor, as it were – carrying out God’s will to the greater glory of the saints while managing to be evil himself (because apparently God has great PR officers), what can we say about these lads?  This is the torture and mastectomy of St Agatha, and I think I may venture to hypothesise that the two at her with pliers are EVILEVILEVIL. Look at their faces – they’re approaching the fiendish themselves[1].

Bibl. Nationale, MS n. a. fr. 16251 fol 87v. Le Livre d'images de Madame Marie, c. 1300. Image taken from Caviness 82.

Hassig has written a chapter on specific details of mediaeval portrayals of Jews/monsters/others/foreigners/devils, all of which elide rather tellingingly at some point.  If I recall[2], there were several things that functioned most strongly in depicting evilother, among them distorted faces, grimaces, crouching posture, tightly curled hair and dark skin.  All of these features are not only present in these unpleasant-looking lads, but accentuated by contrast in every case to the serene, upright, very pale figure between them. So they are associated, not only by narrative function but by visual language, with the actions of the devil.  Standing in for him in the physical performance of Agatha’s martyrdom, they take on physical attributes associated with him – but also, of course, with themselves as ethnically other.

So Christianity’s tendency to create enemies [3] comes in handy here – we have a sliding scale between foreign and devil, between not-us and persecutor and enemy of God, where the only difference between foreigner, pagan, idol, demon and Satan is  of degree.

As the corollary to this, what does Agatha resemble in this picture? Well, in context, that’s rather obvious – who stands around looking bright and benevolent while surrounded by tormentors, with arms stretched out to either side of his head?  And is a complete contrast to devils? In case we missed the similarity, she has her convenient halo to point it out.  There is also a clear sexual difference – she is pure and white and fully clothed (save where they have exposed her body for humiliation and torture) with skirts to the ground, while their legs are bared and the violating instruments are held in a suspiciously phallic position.

Physically, she is approaching (literally) Christ – she is raised above her tormentors, as if halfway to heaven.  And alright, so she has breasts and that’s not entirely Christ-like – but hey, her tormentors are (sergeant-like) removing those for her, so that won’t be a problem for much longer.   Remove those curves, and she would be almost entirely masculine in appearance. 

Of course saints are often depicted as resembling Christ, or rather partaking of the same visual code of virtue and holiness, just as the torturers resemble the devil. But a female saint is visually farther from Christ to begin with, and it’s hardly illogical that she should become masculinised in depiction in the process of approaching him[4].  Caviness has mentioned the tendency towards masculinisation in the tortures visited on female martyrs - Agatha’s isn’t the only mastectomy, and the torments often appear to result in a masculine display of physical courage or fortitude, etc (Caviness 90).

I’ve described it as purely visual, but of course the cultural attitudes are hardly limited to the pictorial. Though Caviness is primarily discussing images, rather than literature, she implies that this tendency is also present in the shape of the stories of the female martyrs: “The threat of the female is expunged by her becoming masculine (or female-less) in response to bodily exposure and torture.  The repetition of the mastectomy topos in so many saints’ lives, possibly by a borrowing from one to the other, is an indication of its cathartic power” (93). 

But doesn’t this imply that ‘female’ is something expunged from the body to leave a pure male remaining? Yet the feminine is already defined by its lack relative to the male body, so logically in lacking both masculinity and femininity one becomes genderless.  Is there, then, a similar tradition (though fainter, I think) in the purification of male saints by castration? I can’t think of nearly so many instances, but one could construct an idea of an idealised non-gendered spiritual body, purged of sex. 

Of course, this is rather too (theo)logical and rather less fundamentally attractive than the idea of ripping off women’s breasts or ‘improving’ the bodies of admired women until they resemble men (the best of men), so it’s not likely to have such a wide currency in popular stories.

[1] Cf. the faces of the people flaying St Barthlomew (from the same ms) in the picture at the end of the last post: one's turning his head away, one looks uncomfortable, and one looks like he's positively enjoying himself.  All three are similarly dressed to Agatha’s tormentors, and the face of the third is the most distorted. 

[2] Unfortunately I haven’t read this article for over a year and my photocopy of it is in Canada and I can’t source it over here in Adelaide, but I shall sharpen the specifics as soon as I get back to Ottawa. I don’t think my memory misrepresents her.

[3] It's ridiculous, isn't it? given the cultural dominance of Christianity for, oh, 1700 years, its insistence on a neurotic self-representation as a persecuted minority. Childhood really is a very formative time, apparently for religions as well as people. It is a very attractive self-representation too, isn't it - it means you needn't mature emotionally beyond that childhood phase of ranting at injustice and being misunderstood, and may construct enemies everywhere at a moment's notice. After all, you're the victim, right?

[4] This raises a question, which I’m not addressing now because I’m really just thinking aloud (well, on a screen): Are any female martyrs depicted in a Marian code, rather than a Messianic one? I can’t think of any, and it’s less intuitive – but are the unmartyred female saints depicted consistently in the visual tradition of Mary, then? Is there an appreciable divide there?

Caviness, Madeline H. Visualizing women in the Middle Ages: Sight, spectacle and scopic economy. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 2001.
Hassig, Debra. "The iconography of Rejection: Jews and other Monstrous Races". Image and Belief: Studies in the Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art.
Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999. 25-46.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The fiend as God's sergeant (part 1/2)

In the medieval narratives [of female martyrs] good girl and bad girl alike were stripped only to mortify the flesh, whether at the behest of an evil emperor or of Satan, who oddly enough carries out the punishments to which sinners are condemned by God. (Caviness 85)
Well, but it isn’t odd. At least according to the pattern of the Gilte Legend (which, incorporating as it does many different versions of many different stories from many different traditions, rarely has a pattern but does manage one in this case), infernal intervention in saints’ lives is always associated with the pattern of divine will. Fiends enact God’s purpose, both in demonstrating the saint’s glory and in performing divine vengeance on sinners. They get the dirty work, but their actions tend to God’s ends. Of course, from a narrative point of view, every character and action in a moralistic short story point towards the same moral end; but the articulation (by narrator, saints and fiends) of the fiends’ purposes show a deliberate unity between infernal and divine intentions.

I’ve only a few pages of the Gilte Legende with me here in Adelaide, and none have examples of Satan or fiends explicitly involved with a martyrdom (though, as I mention in my next post, they’re there ‘in spirit’ in the person of the tormentors). But of the eight pages I have (well, sixteen – eight photocopies of facing pages), there are enough consistent references to fiends to generalise about their behaviour – and they are far from autonomous.

When the son of the provost who sent St Agnes to the brothel goes to visit her there (presumably with rape in mind, given he takes a gang of his friends along), he is foiled by a/the fiend acting in concert with heavenly light:
And whanne he wolde haue touched her the bryghtnesse of the light come ayeinst hym, and he yelded no worshippes ne thankyngges to God, wherfor he was anone strangeled of the fende. (110)
“Strangled by the fiend” (“strangled” can mean “smothered” or even just “killed”) seems almost a figure of speech (though of a piece with the literal behaviour of fiends elsewhere), until Agnes explains to his father that yes, in fact, agency in that act does belong to the devil, and is due explicitly to the boy’s choice of him over God:
He of whom he wolde fulfell the wille toke pouer vpon hym and slough hym, and whanne his felawes sayn the miracle of God thei turned ayein all dredfulli withouten any harme. (110)
Moments like this in which fiends punish sinners usually occur as a direct result of some action by the saint[1] (though notice that the saint does not instruct the fiend to do so):
[St Longinus] toke an axe and braste doun all þe ydollis... And þe fendis þat wente oute of þe ydollis entrid into the [evil] prouost and within his felawis, and þay al torente hemself as madde men and knelid doun to Longius. (212)
Longinus then removes the devils and restores the men to sanity[2]. Similarly,
... the preste of the idoles that hadde geue his counsell [to kill St Vitalis] was anone rauished withe the fende and was verray wood .vij. dayes and cried in the place wher Seint Vitall was buried: ‘Allas, Vitall, how thou brennest me.’ And in the .vij.te day þ fende threwe hym in the riuer wher he deied cursedly”. (284)
Even when not punishing the saint’s tormentors, the fiends invariably (so far as I can recall) take action solely for the benefit of the saint – the moral and demonstrative benefit, that is, even if they humiliate his/her body. They enable the saint to either ascend to a higher moral plane, or (more commonly) to demonstrate his/her moral/spiritual superiority and the power consequently given him/her by God.

The demonstration, of course, works on two levels: to other characters in the narrative, and to the reader. Some incidents are designed more for one audience than the other: proof aimed at the world of the narrative often involves very public confrontation or spectacular miracles, as in the previous examples, while those aimed at the reader need not be witnessed by other characters, and are more likely to recall stories of Christ’s actions or passion.

Macarius, for example, is tested privately, “in the supulture of a dede man” in “a place of desert”, recalling Christ’s temptation in the wilderness[3] and his entombment (possibly also the harrowing of Hell). The fiends who find him have no purpose but “to make hym afraied”, and Macarius’ imperviousness causes them to flee, helpfully informing the audience as they go that he has “ouercome us”. Another more violent fiend later tries to attack him with a scythe, “but he myght not”. Macarius need not even speak to deter this fiend, as he is simply and mysterious impervious. This fiend is also handily explicit in not only demonstrating Macarius’ moral superiority, but explicating its nature to the reader:
And thanne he saide hym: ‘A, thou Makarie, thou makest me to suffre gret violence, for I may do nothyng ayeinst the. And I doo as thou doost, thou fastest and I ete not, thou wakest and I slepe not, but one thing is wherin thou ouercomest vs most.’ Thanne the abbot saide: ‘Wherin is that?’ And the fende saide: ‘Humilitie, wherfor I may do nothyng ayeinst the.’ (93)
The place of the fiend in these tales is very ordered.  It cannot be a true enemy, with motivations and agenda of its own, nor can it pose a real threat to the saint or to God’s plan.  Though malicious, it acts only within God’s plan, and can have effect only against those who have already committed themselves to the devil by actions against God or God’s proxy.  Attempted action against that proxy serves only their aggrandisement – and the fiends not only seem to know this, but sometimes get quite chatty with the saints about it (Longinus is another such).  They may have rebelled originally against God, but they seem incapable of rebelling against their place as it is now in the natural order. 

I am reminded of Dante’s Minos:

Gustav Doré's impression of Minos, 1890
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia:
essamina le colpe ne l'intrata;
giudica e manda secondo ch'avvinghia.
Dico che quando l'anima mal nata
li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa;
e quel conoscitor de le peccata
vede qual loco d'inferno è da essa;
cignesi con la coda tante volte
quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa. (Inferno V.4-12)
Minos crouches in the second circle, “horrible and growling”, examining the sins of all who come before him and, by the number of times he curls his tail, indicates the circle to which divine judgement condemns the sinner. Enacting God’s justice, he nevertheless remains monstrously other – an infernal other, not divinely elevated. He points doom with that least human organ, the tail, rather than the hand with which God made the world. Similarly, a loving God is not directly responsible for the horrors visited on the saint or meted out against his/her tormentors (as the saint does not instruct the fiends to punish the pagans); but nevertheless they remain part of a greater divine plan.

It seems to me this view of the fiend serves two functions: reassurance and permission.  On the one hand, the fiend is not active in the world without the supervision of God: these torments, while physically horrific, not only guarantee the saint a place in God’s presence but are ordained by God, who ultimately has control over the situation, over the worst of what happens to us in life.  On the other hand, by token of the first, the martyrdom is an act of God and may therefore be venerated, obsessed over, fetishised, depicted, relished as a work of literature or art. It creates and defines an acceptable way of looking, for images like this:

The flaying of St Bartholomew; Bibl. Nat. MS n. a. fr. 16251 fol. 67v. Le Livre d'images of Madame Marie, c. 1300.

[1] Note that in Agnes’ case the punishment is prompted not by her action but by action against her. I may have to collect a larger sample group to observe whether this is usually gendered. Cf. St Vitalis, whose death is the precipitating factor; though I think I would argue that for a saint martyrdom is an action, potentially the moment of their greatest power.
[2] Upon which, they kill him. At his own request. And the provost weeps for him. Saints are peculiar.
[3] And in Jerusalem, technically, thanks to Lucifer and his superspeed travel. And I’d just like to say that, if refusing the suggestion that you throw yourself off a tall building is a qualification for divinity, I manage to do that every day. Well, I would if more people suggested it to me on a regular basis. I think I would make a relatively sensible deity.  Though some sects might carry out pogroms in the name of correct use of punctuation and antecedents.

Caviness, Madeline H. Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Dante. Inferno. Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Società Dantesca Italiana, 1994.