Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ramblings on Christina of Markyate’s mouth

So I accidentally bought a book the other day (the bookshop was just there, flashing its volumes enticingly at me): The Life of Christina of Markyate, A Twelfth-Century Recluse. It’s published in 2005 by Toronto U. P., but is actually a re-issue of a 1959 edition+translation by C. H. Talbot, who managed with great effort to transcribe those parts of the single manuscript that were not destroyed or obscured by the Cotton fire of 1731 (honestly, why would you move a collection of priceless manuscripts to a place called Ashburnham House for temporary storage? Someone was just asking for trouble).  My excuse for the flagrant self-indulgence (it cost all of $9!) is that it is tangentially related to my thesis, as it’s a product of St Albans, and I’ll be using existing studies on the historical-writing culture of St Albans as a touchstone for more original work that I intend to do on other places.  And, although she lived during the first half of the 12th century, and the vita seems to have been writing during her vita, the surviving manuscript was written (apparently with some intentional alteration from the lost original) in the mid 14th, so it’s within my time period too[1].

I’ve only just started reading it, but I was immediately struck by the style of narration, in which speech is very prominent.  It frequently uses direct speech, marked by the use of the first person (note the punctuation of the transcription):
Dixitque. Dimitte me. ut eam hostium obserare. Quia licet minime Deum metuimus. saltem homines opere tali ne superveniant vereri debemus.
And she said to him: ‘Allow me to bolt the door: for even if we have no fear of God, at least we should take precautions that no man should catch us in this act.’ (42-43) 
Direct speech is both frequent and usually marks the emotional and moral crux of each scene. Not only that, but it emphasises speech and its style and effect to such a degree that it would not be an exaggeration to call the whole vita (well, so far as I’ve read) a narrative of speech events.

  • Almost every scene centres around a particular potent occasion of speech. 
  • Christina’s devotion to Christ is learned and expressed through speech, as is the battle for her mind and chastity. 
  • The proof of her holiness is in her speech: eg, when young she speaks aloud to Christ in her room at night, in a loud clear voice, believing that no mortal could hear her while she was addressing God.
  • Her spiritual education by Sueno is told in terms of his speech and the “colloquium” he had with her. And the elided “cum” in “cum”+“loquor” is appropriate: we are told that he is learning from her speech as much as the other way around.
  • Similarly, when trying to force her into marriage, her parents’ primary method of coercion is to keep all religious, god-fearing men from having “colloquium” with her, as if blocking access to the words can keep God away. Instead, she is surrounded examples of bad speech, by “people given to jesting, boasting, worldly amusement, and those whose evil communications [mala colloquia] corrupt good manners [mores bonos]” (47).
  • In addition, they set one of her best friends on her, who uses flattery and persuasion and sheer persistence for a whole year to try to persuade her to consent – to that one verbal act that constitutes a contract of betrothal or marriage (depending on verb tense).
  • Vows, prayers and moments of verbal consent are the turning points that provide the dramatic structure of the narrative.
  • In trying to seduce her, the evil bishop Ralph of Durham uses not force, or even simply words, but explicitly “that mouth which he used to consecrate the sacred species”, neatly demonstrating the moral difference between his speech and hers.

    In the example I quoted above, the use of direct speech provides the dramatic and moral crux of the scene. Ralph is  trying to seduce/rape the young Christina in his bedroom, and she is employing a ruse to allow her nearer the door so that she can escape, while pretending to acquiesce. The direct speech thus dramatises the ploy, heightening its effect, and doubles it by having her feign what we as readers know is a completely insincere disregard for God and God’s omnipresence. At the same time, that jarring note serves as a harsh reminder of exactly what the bishop’s priorities should be, highlighting his hypocrisy and thus suggesting that Christina’s apparent dishonesty is excusable, in the service of a higher truth.

    The bishop demands her oath that she would not ‘fail’ but that she indeed lock the door; she swears to it, darts out of the room and locks him in. These happen in reported speech, rather than direct, playing out the suggestions inherent in the direct speech.

    Incidentally, the word I’ve rendered above as ‘fail’ is my own translation of ‘falleret’.  Talbot, who prefers throughout to read this text as a literal account of her life[2], misses the double meaning here and translates it as ‘deceive him’ – certainly the primary meaning in context, and the only meaning Ralph intends, but I would have preferred to have the ominous hint preserved.  To fall truly in this instance, to fail in her vows of virginity, would be to stay in the room with him.

    This emphasises the difference maintained throughout the scene between her reading of words (which is largely allegorical) and his (determinedly centred on the physically present).  She observes that the door is closed but not bolted (“clausum… sed non obseratum”). Similarly, her chastity is so far defended, but not inviolable.  Bolting the door erects a physical barrier between her and her would-be violator, just as there is already a spiritual barrier between them.  She has kept her promise she made to him: she has locked the door both physically and spiritually, in a manner far more significant than he intended. She is not forsworn: she adheres to a truth he cannot comprehend.


    [1] Copying a text, especially with substantial editing, definitely counts as historical writing for my purposes.  Oddly, Talbot seems to make little distinction between the original author and the amending copyist – so far as I can tell, as he uses the word ‘biographer’ for both, he seems to assume they’re both from St Albans on the grounds of the same textual evidence (use of “nostrum” etc when referring to the saint or monastery).

    [2] He emphasises the biographer’s close relationship to her and the fact that it was written in her lifetime, as well as the paucity of fantastical tales that mark most hagiography of the period, to conclude that it was a genuine attempt at a “history” of the real woman rather than a collection of “stock elements”.  I… disagree, mostly with that distinction.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Bloggers with faces and pre-Carolingian Baptists (in the sixties)

    Further Things I Have Learned In New York:

    - CUNY is fun. And has fun people at it.

    - Some bloggers are real people, and are actually moderating your panel (hi Jenn!).

    - Mediaeval music theorists also used Venn diagrams.

    - You can tell at the start of the day which of the speakers from the first panel will be interested enough to stick around for the rest of the day, and which will vanish soon after giving their own paper.

    - More people will appear for the papers immediately preceding and succeeding lunch.

    - No matter how interesting the papers, those chairs start to hurt after five hours.

    - Friends of the Saints is a fun group to join for an evening's discussion after the conference, even if you haven't done the reading.

    - Most importantly.  If you (hypothetically speaking) wander into the room where such a group is meeting simply because you want the free wine and cheese, despite not being any  manner of historian, do indeed sit down at the back of the group to shield the single focus of your intent, but do not feel obliged to comment on the proceedings. Really.  There is a reason we haven't discussed Protestants or Baptists yet.We're not being discriminatory, it's just that we're discussing the pre-Carolingian relics trade.

    - In entirely unrelated news, some discussion leaders are very very good at taking random comments and assimilating them into the discussion as if they were actually relevant and helpful. Now, there is a skill I envy.

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    New York, New .... Jersey?

    Things I Have Learned So Far While In New York For A CUNY Grad Conference:

    - There are two Penn stations. When the man at the air train tells you to get off at Penn Station, he actually means do not get off at Penn Station, but rather stay on the train and wait for the next Penn Station. Otherwise, you will find you are still in New Jersey.

    - Always book a hotel right next to the Empire State Building. That way, you can step out of the train station and go 'hm, Eighth Avenue, but is Fifth this way or ... oh, what is that I see looming right over the skyline over there? Right, that way it is.'

    - There are many jobs in the world that I Do Not Want. Current top is standing on the street corner holding up the sign that says 'Dunkin Donuts ---->'.

    - There really are a lot of yellow taxis.

    - No wonder America spawns so many superheroes that fly or leap from building to building. Their streets are canyons.

    - They really do offer you cheesecake for breakfast. The place I'm sitting in now even looks like the place where they have the wager over cheesecake or strudel in the Frank Sinatra film of Guys and Dolls. (I am being non-iconic and eating yoghurt with fruit and muesli.)

    - It is possible to get decent pizza in New York. As, not three inches deep and drowned with cheese and containing vegetables (if any) that have not been freeze-dried for years.

    - And I haven't even gone to the conference yet. Registration is in 45 minutes. The question becomes, after a night spent waking up all the time to the dulcet tones of New York car horn conversations, will I have the brain left by 3 pm to give an engaged and energetic performance? Well, if not, one simply regards it as a performance and falls back on old stage training!

    Friday, March 5, 2010

    The Tale of Zeus and Dame Ragnelle

    No, it will make sense. Bear with me.

    So, I’ve a conference next week at which I’m speaking on The Weddynge of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a mid-15C analogue of the Loathly Lady tale that also appears in, for example, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale. The fact that the conference theme is “Intimacy: Family, Friendship and Fealty” means that I can’t just go haring off after the diversion that occurred to me last night, so: once more unto the blog!

    The history of the Loathly Lady figure relative to Irish sovereignty tales (in which the lady represents the country) has been well established.  I have no citations by me, as I am writing this on the bus, but I believe Frederick Madden had something to say about it in his collection of Gawain stories, and it goes on from there according to the usual patterns of late 19-early 20C myth-discovery.  That is, therefore, the accepted mythical ancestor of the figure, and as hunting out mythological precedents is rather out of fashion and the genealogy is well traced I don’t believe  anyone has thought to dispute it, or posit any additional ancestor.

    But surely the obvious classical precedent is the god-who-comes-to-dinner? Zeus, or some other god (usually Zeus as the patron of hospitality), disguises him/herself as some ugly, poor old beggar and asks for shelter and food. Or, of course, for help crossing a river, etc.  This is a test, the protagonist responds according to their moral stature, and the god suddenly sheds his unprepossessing exterior to reveal himself in all his glory to pass judgement on the protagonist, along with appropriate reward or punishment.  I don’t recall offhand whether any examples of that trope appear in Ovid, but it’s entirely in keeping with the system of virtue and reward evident in the Aeneid, to consider just two of the most culturally influential classical texts extant in the Middle Ages.

    The main linking device is, of course, the transformation: a disguised stranger who appeared unworthy according to the ideals of the genre – poor and old and helpless in Greek mythology, disgusting and unmannerly and often old in romance – is suddenly transformed into the epitome of those ideals. In addition:

    • the transformation is in direct response to the actions of the protagonist towards the stranger,
    • in entering the narrative, the stranger will, explicitly or otherwise, initiate a kind of test for the protagonist, in which their response demonstrates (and thereby establishes) their virtue,
    • the stranger retains to him/herself the authority to pass judgement on the protagonist’s actions after the return transformation (rather than delegating that task to the narrator), claiming the status of moral arbiter of the narrative,
    • similarly, the stranger him/herself dispenses punishment or reward.
    The trouble with this is that it’s a bit of a jump from Greek mythology to mediaeval romance.  And there is a good deal of cultural filtering and reconditioning that must take place there to make any Greek story (or figure) have any relevance to a late-mediaeval audience.

    So where else can we find a more immediate precedent to this figure, a precedent that provides a type of bridging device between classical myth and late-mediaeval readership? a precedent in a tradition that is entirely accustomed to absorbing classical and/or pagan stories and recasting them to its own set of moral values?

    ... whanne Seint Iulian reste hym aboute midnyght al forweried [weary] and the wedyr colde and a gret froste, he herde a vois that wepte piteously and cried: 'Iulian, helpe me ouer for Goddes loue or ellis I perische for greuous colde.' And whanne he herde that voys he arose al sodenly [immediately] and passed the colde water and founde that pore creature that deied nigh for colde, toke hym up and bere hym to his hous and light the fere and dede al his diligence to warme hym. And as he myght in no wise make hym take warmthe he toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde... And a litell after he that apered to be so sike and as a foule lepre stied vp shinyng into heuene, saieng to his oste: 'Iulian, oure Lorde hathe sent me to the, sendyng the to saie that he hathe receiued thi and ye bothe shull reste in oure Lorde witheinne a litell tyme' And anone he vanished awaye... (Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer, EETS 2006; v. 1, 144)
    Appropriately enough, that comes from the story of St Julian Hospitaller, Zeus’ descendant in the role of protecting the sacred laws of hospitality and defending the safety of guests.  But it works perfectly well in a Christian context, thus refigured – well enough that throughout the Gilte Legende (and elsewhere), saints and even Jesus himself regularly pop up where they’re not expected, mysteriously disguised, usually as someone helpless, and initiate a test of some kind or another.  Quite of a piece with the popular belief that saints really could interfere in a very material way with everyday life – all your big brothers are watching you.

    So, if Dame Ragnelle has cross-genre precedents in, for example, St Julian and others, can we expect that her contemporary audience might have recognised them and picked up on the currents? I think so – if nothing else, Ragnelle seems to deliberately play with the collision of genre, pushing herself forcibly into society, conscious of her own incongruity and playing it for all it’s worth with her fine clothes and horse.  If so, the audience could expect her at her appearance to make demands which would set up a challenge as a moral test – apparently for both Arthur and Gawain. And she does, tests which Gawain passes and Arthur fails (largely by fobbing responsibility off on his nephew).

    But if she refers to or recalls testing figures in hagiography, does this have an effect on what is being tested? Courtly virtues? Christian ones?  The story of St Julian explicitly opposes the life of the court (and its values) with the humble Christian values that  attend helping mysterious sick strangers (for which you have to live in an isolated hut beside a ‘flode’). The Wife of Bath’s nameless loathly lady gives a pillow-lecture that could be read as being in opposition to ‘courtly’ virtues. And Gawain, when his ugly wife has become beautiful, thanks God for her deliverance from a curse (and presumably for his from the equally horrible fate of having to look on her all the time). Perhaps Arthur’s failure is that he tries to adhere to courtly virtues which are (or could be read as) so dependent on appearance as reflective of personal status.