“Bring the scales and weigh his act”: Medieval Justice in “The Cannibal of Qəmər”⚖️

Near the conclusion of “The Cannibal of Qəmər,” in an effort to determine whether the cannibal ought to be granted salvation, there is a moment where Mary acts as mediator and requests that the man-eater’s sentence be re-evaluated. In this moment, the text brushes up against ideas of justice and mercy through the symbol of the balance-scales:

“The Lord replied, “What did he do for your sake? 33 For what act should I show him mercy? Did he not eat seventy-seven [sic] human beings?”Our holy Lady, the two-fold virgin│259a│ Mary, bearer of the Lord, replied, “As a charitable act, he gave [someone water] to drink for the sake of my favor. [Remember,] you pledged to me, ‘Whoever does [something] in commemoration of you and calls out your name shall be saved.’”The Lord replied, “I will not break my word. Bring the scales and weigh his act.”34And when they weighed it, the handful of water prevailed over the [murder of] seventy-eight │259b│ human beings.”

The Täˀammərä Maryam manuscript in the Princeton University Library shows multiple images of this moment depicted by an angel holding balance scales (images from Wendy Laura Belcher’s article on the story):

Täˀammərä Maryam, image 187, Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 65, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

I’m thinking about this moment in relationship both to medieval ideas of cannibalism (which we’ve discussed briefly in this graduate seminar already) but also in relationship to medieval ideas of justice, and the judicial symbology of the balance scales. How did medieval people understand the metaphorical “weight” of deeds? Or, in other words, what are the medieval metaphysics of the relative “weight” of actions? These are not questions I have the answers to, but I think are key to understanding how this particular text works.

Belcher, in her analysis of the story, claims that Ethiopian texts were often concerned with survival, rather than communicating a “moral” like most Western Marian tales were. In this tale, then, the three methods of survival are either to be strong like the plowman, be undesirable like the sick man with lesions, or to align oneself with powerful mediators, like the cannibal does. In the context of the tale “Mary is the perfect mediator because the all-powerful patron Christ must love his mother more than he loves other human beings. As a result, the cannibal needs neither repentance nor goodness because salvation is more a matter of aligning with the powerful than with justice” (42).

So if the text is more concerned with survival and powerful mediators, what role do the balance scales play? In both images Belcher provides, the scales are held by a (presumably) unbiased third party, namely the angel, and yet they depict the water as clearly weighing more than the 78 murdered victims. There seems to be some symbolic effort at impartiality here; rather than just declaring that Mary is right and letting the cannibal into heaven (“I will not break my word”), the Lord adds “Bring the scales and weigh his act.” How do these scales and the symbol of “weighing” an individual’s actions contribute to or intersect with this ethic of survival that Belcher identifies? Is it because the cannibal’s charitable act enabled the survival of another? And how do these questions inform our understanding of the act of cannibalism itself – the act of consuming another human’s flesh for one’s own sustenance? Would the balance of the scales been affected if the “worst sin” being balanced here was one which in no way contributed to the survival of the individual being judged?

Again, these are all questions I do not have answers to. But medieval Ethiopic psychostasia is clearly central to this text, and parsing its metaphysical implications might help illuminate some of the interventions this text makes in medieval conceptions of divine justice.

(Featured Image, Täˀammərä Maryam, f. 144r, Princeton Ethiopic Manuscript No. 57, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

Blind Souls and Blind Bodies

William of Auvergne begins his philosophical treatise proving the immortality of the soul with a discussion of the five ways that “human errors are taken care of.” The first, is “by sensation, through experience,” next by punishment, by philosophy, by authority, and finally through divine revelation. At the end of this list, William describes these methods for correcting human error as a cure for spiritual blindness: “The divine goodness has bestowed upon us these five ways, like five divine remedies or salves clearing the eyes, to heal blindness regarding errors and spiritual things” (23). By likening these five ways of “taking care” of human error to “remedies” or “salves,” William not only links methods of spiritual intervention with medical practice, but he also compares the soul to eyes that must be “cleared,” and sin to “blindness” in those eyes that must be “healed.” At the same time, William argues that the soul (or the intellectual spirit) has “its proper activity is strengthened in separation from the body,” since the body actually hinders the soul’s ability to discern spiritual things. Sin, in William’s schema, is essentially a spiritual disability, but one which only affects the body, and by-so-doing inhibits the soul; as a result, the only way to be free of sin is to be free of the body itself, so that the soul might “see clearly.” These two uses of the sight/blindness/soul/sin metaphor coexist for William – the soul is both a set of eyes that need to be cleared of blindness by the salve of experience, punishment, philosophy, authority, and divine revelation, and ALSO, the soul is defined specifically by its separation from the body, its ability to exist outside of, beyond, and even be strengthened by the body’s illness and inevitable death.

This comparison between blindness and sin was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. According to Edward Wheatley in his book Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of Disability that there is a propensity of examples of blinding being used as a metaphor for spiritual blindness and also being described as a literal punishment for sin (especially sexual sin) (129). Wheatley speaks at length about Christus medicus or the Christ as Physician trope which was popular in the Middle Ages as well, owing primarily to miracle stories from the New Testament (the image of Christ putting mud on the eyes of a blind man and telling him to wash his eyes to cure his blindness specifically comes to mind here) (155). However, what strikes me in William’s initial treatement of blindness is less the alignment of disability with sin, and moreso the very medicalize language applied to the five ways of “taking care” of human error – if blindness is a metaphor for sin, these five ways to correct sinful behavior are described as “remedies” and “salves” to help “heal” blindness. However, Wheatley notes that “medieval texts generally do not allude to medicine’s triumphs over blindness. Cures of this impairment are more readily available in hagiographic and other religious texts…there, hagiographers (especially during the thirteenth century and later) often state that people suffering from impairments tried medical cures unsuccessfully before resorting to the religious ones, a progression that serves to enhance the divine power in the miracle by comparison to the previous medical failure” (186).

We do know, however, that medieval people thought a lot about cures for blindness. The image I chose for this blog post is just one of many like it from medieval medical treatises, and even the Trotula – a medical text specifically about women’s medicine – includes two explicit mentions of blindness, one in the passage on the suffocation of the womb [“Sometimes the woman is contracted so that the head is joined to the knees, and she lacks vision, and she loses the function of voice, the nose is distorted, and the lips are contracted and she grits her teeth, and the chest is elevated upward beyond what is normal” (71)] and the other in the Compound Medicines in the Trotula Ensemble, were there is a cure listed for blindness, a salve called “Trifera saracenica” (called this because “it was invented by the Saracens”) which not only “renders a person young again” but also treats jaundice, liver problems, head pain on account of a “fumosity of red bile,” “double-tertian fever” and “restores sight lost from [excessive] heat” served with cold or hot water depending on whether it is cold or hot tempers that are imbalanced.

And yet despite his description of these “fives ways” as a remedy or a salve, William seems to distance himself from any curative impulses regarding the body, but rather relies on its propensity for illness to make his claims regarding the immortality of the soul. Throughout his philosophical treatise, William uses the senses (often sight specifically) to help him parse what makes the intellect (and thereby the soul) distinct from the mortal body. His main way of doing so is to discuss the way that the senses and the organs which govern them can be injured or diseased: “For we do not say that exterior sight or hearing injures or impedes the intellect, but that it truly occupies the human mind so that it is not free at that time for intellective activity, because it is drawn through sight or through hearing to particular external things” (29).  He uses this “sight” comparison again more extensively a bit later in the treatise: “If someone asks how sight can be corrupted by visible forms, we answer that sight is a harmony as regards its organ and its power is partially in the organ. For this reason it is necessarily destroyed by the destruction of that organ to the extent that it depends upon it. But the organ of sight is destroyed by things that exceed its harmony, that is, by powerful objects of sight. Just the opposite is the case with the intellect, since the intellect does not have a determinate part in the body that is its organ, and it is strengthened and twos strong as a result of powerful objects of the intellect” (48). Thus, the bodily senses are distinct from the intellect specifically because it is capable of being “destroyed” by “things that exceed its harmony” – that is, the eyes of the body are distinct from the metaphorical eyes of the soul specifically because these eyes can be blinded.


“The Apple” that Brings Balance to the Humors

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that when reading “The Apple: Or, Aristotle’s Death” I was primarily drawn to the passages about the four humors. The two main quotes that talk about the humors link them with the bodily senses and the “sensible soul” – which makes sense, considering the fact that the humors are not only fluids within the physical body, but also are influenced by earthly things like the elements and the stars. The first time the connection to the humors is implied is directly after Aristotle sniffs his apple for the first time – the apple that has sustained his life beyond its natural life. When the wise men who followed him are distressed over how thin and weak and ill Aristotle looks, he says to them that “if it weren’t for this apple which I am holding in my hand and whose odor strengthens me and prolongs my life” then he would have “already expired,” but “the sensible soul, which we share with the beasts, is sustained by a good odor.” Somehow, the apple’s odor is capable of re-balancing the humors which have caused his illness, at least temporarily so that he might discuss Big Philosophical Questions with his Wise Men Followers before he dies. Sniffing the apple works because of the body’s connection to the earth and to the beasts – after all, the “sensible soul” is the one of the four souls that we “share with beasts.” It is at this point that Aristotle first reveals how relieved he is to be leaving his worldly body behind:

And I am happy that I am departing from this world, which is composed of contraries;
for the four elements, from which every created thing under the sun is made, are
contraries. One is cold, another hot, another dry, another moist. How can a body
composed of such elements last, or be prolonged in life, except briefly? When those
elements are in equilibrium and do not oppose each other, and when no one of them overcomes its contrary, then one’s life is well-ordered, and he can live. But when one dominates another, diminishes and weakens its own contrary, then illness comes. If some highly skilled doctor can be found, who recognizes the illness, so that he can strengthen the weak elements and weaken the stronger, then the body is restored to its strength and can convalesce. But many of them neither know nor recognize the case; they increase the body’s illness and cause it to descend to ruin and death.”

While not explicitly mentioning the four humors, this passage would have had a clear connection to the humors for a medieval reader. Each of the four humors (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic) were associated not only with a different bodily fluid (air, water, fire, and earth) but also were also associate with particular contrary features, namely cold, hot, moist, and dry. Wikipedia actually has a handy table that helps organize this:


So when Aristotle is discussing the ways in which these elements either find “equilibrium” in health or are “contrary” to each other in illness, the text is relying on an established humoral tradition that view balance and imbalance of the four humors/elements/temperaments as vital to bodily health. The text seems to reason here that, since the world is so full of contradictory elements/humors, the deterioration and illness of the body is inevitable.

I find it interesting, then, that this text – one that seems to find its primary rational in disavowing the “sensible soul” and discussing the ways the earthly form is inherently flawed and a relief to be rid of – seems to ascribe such a prominent place to the apple which sustains Aristotle’s body. At the same time as the “sensible soul” is the one that “we share with beasts” it is also the one that allows Aristotle to be sustained and “re-balanced” by the odor emitted from the apple. (Fun fact: many medieval medicinal cures listed in texts like The Trotula involved odors which were intended to re-balance the humors and banish bad fluids from the body – for example, if you had a stomach ache, you should stand over something sweet-smelling and sniff something foul-smelling, but if you had a headache, you should sniff something sweet-smelling and stand over something foul-smelling, so as to draw the problematic fluids from the body and re-establish balance).

Despite the positive connotations surrounding the apple (a reversal of Eden, perhaps?), the moment when the humors get brought up explicitly is also one which (unsurprisingly) disavows the body:

“For he who is deeply intent upon eating and drinking, and uses the
least pleasures of this kind (which he can enjoy only while he is eating) corrupts his
body with diseases and pain. For the nascent humors in the body, which are the
source of a man’s life and strength, increase immoderately as a result of much food
and drink. One is blood, the source of life; it is warm and moist. The second is black
bile, which is cold and dry. The third is yellow bile, which is warm and dry. The
fourth is phlegm, which is cold and moist. Each of these is diminished and increased
and alters its nature as a result of excessive and variable eating. Likewise, one who
makes great use of venereal pleasure ages his body and macerates its substance. A
wise man is careful. He despises all such things and perfects his soul by seeking
knowledge of his Creator, Who made being itself out of nothing.”

This text connects the body and the earthly world to imbalance, contrary elements, inevitable illness, and death. The body is something that is a relief to be rid of. And yet, there is also an acknowledgement that over-indulgence in things of the world will cause the body to become imbalanced. Eating, drinking, and “venereal pleasures” will cause the humors to become even more imbalanced, and will cause further illness, and yet the avoidance of these things does not ensure health.  The apple then becomes a symbol for the liminal space the body finds itself in, neither fully corrupted and sick nor free of death. The apple can restore the humors momentarily, but health cannot be ensured, and illness cannot be fended off indefinitely. Eventually, the apple must fall from Aristotle’s hand.

Nota Bene: One of the things I find fascinating about the four humors is that they are still used as personality texts and pseudo-psychology. They are viral ideas – memes according to Richard Dawkins definition of a “cultural idea that reproduces with slight variants.” You can still take personality tests to find out what temperament you have (I’m a sanguine/phlegmatic) and you’ll get a little write up that explains what this means about your personality (I’m fun-loving but I’m also a people-pleaser). Coincidentally, I’m also a Scorpio/Libra cusp, which means I’m both a water and air sign – water and air just so happen to be the elements that primarily govern my temperament. All of this to say; these modes of organizing bodily experience have been transposed onto modern personality quizzes in fascinating ways. Everyone should take the temperaments quiz, either the short version or the longer version.




Yolanda: an “Old Child” with a man’s heart and a woman’s body

In his 1998 essay on “Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden,” Joseph M Sullivan argues that young Yolanda “epitomizes what Weinstein and Bell term the “old child”” (168) which for medieval hagiographers is when mature religious impulses and desires are read backwards into the childhoods of their protagonists. Thus, in Brother Hermann’s text, the old child – Yolanda – distinguishes herself from her peers “by seriousness of speech and manner” and by refusing to take part in the games of her peers. This peculiar feature of her sainthood seems to be a transferal of Yolanda’s refusal of the world from a learned virtue to more of an inherent or natural virtue. As a common feature of hagiography, I couldn’t help but ask some questions about what this “old child” trope implies about medieval ideas concerning children, virtue, and ideas about governing conduct.

Because this text was written in the vernacular, it’s possible that rather than being an case for Yolanda’s canonization, it was instead written as a sort of conduct manual for Dominican nuns written using hagiographic tropes (Sullivan 164). But how could this text function as a conduct manual if the protagonist in question was an “old child,” one who was free of the folly and triviality that other children are subject to?

One of the moments that struck me when puzzling through this was the scene where Yolanda first runs from her mother in the convent and manages to incite the other nuns to dress her in the habit of the novitiate. She strips herself of her courtly clothes and “quickly she told them to dress her. Her hair touched the floor, curly, golden, and fine. Full of love, she told them all to cut off her hair. That was too hard for the sisters; they couldn’t cut it. Yolanda herself then took the scissors in her hand, the pure and blessed Yolanda. She cut, she turned it up, she sheared. The sisters then ran up and helped her finish the haircut” (1840-50). In this moment, Yolanda sets an example for the other nuns of the order by shearing her own head. The other nuns then join in, helping her to complete the task and replacing her “head-band, taffeta, ribbons, silk” with the “way of the cloister.” In this moment, it seems that Yolanda is only able to behave as an example for the nuns conduct because she is ALREADY capable of doing the thing that they are not yet capable of doing. Her hair – a symbol of her femininity, beauty, courtly-life, youth and virginity – is something that she has already abandoned; or, rather, it’s something she never wanted in the first place, and therefore never needed to abandon, only to escape. Meanwhile, it is “too hard” for the nuns to cut the hair from her head until she first shows them how.

However, at the same time that Yolanda seems predisposed to virtue, immediately after this episode she is shown as needing to bolster her courage and strength: “Ah, poor girl, alas! What good help she needs now! For she has stepped into the turning wheel and she must fight there as a matter of life and death. She needs much good hope. For the good young woman is in peril. She must borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body. Yes, a woman’s strength is not enough for her tender body” (1851-62). In this moment immediately following her brave shearing of her own hair, Yolanda now requires some kind of help; here perhaps we see a moment of writer clairvoyance on Brother Hermann’s part – he of course knows that this decision is the beginning of years of conflict, pain, and struggle for Yolanda as she fights to follow her virtue and stay in the cloister against her mother’s wishes. However, rather than saying Yolanda prayed for grace or something of similar nature, instead Hermann says that Yolanda needed to “borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body.” Suddenly, in this moment where Yolanda’s childhood predisposition to strength of virtue perhaps momentarily falters, it is not Christ or grace that are invoked, but rather ideas about gender. Yolanda is an old child, but she has a woman’s body, and therefore needs a man’s heart in order to have the hope and the strength the needs to confront the years of pain to come. How does this sudden invocation of gender complicate ideas about virtue and conduct exemplar that up to this point have seemed to follow fairly clear hagiographic tropes? Yolanda needs to be an “old child” in order to provide the example that the other nuns in the cloister needs. She must have already rejected the world and already abandoned her beautiful hair in order to show the nuns how to begin to shear it. However, now faced with the “turning wheel” (of Fortune?) she has stepped into, she needs a man’s heart…in order to continue to be an example? Is this a moment when our hagiographer doubts the relative fortitude of his protagonist?

What strikes me then, as this scene comes to a close, before it is interrupted by the anger of Yolanda’s mother, is that we land on an image of Yolanda, kneeling before the altar, listening to the choir sing “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit, Creator Blest”).  This song (if it’s the version that I’m thinking) is doing all the things that a hymn probably ought to do in this moment – it is invoking the Holy Spirit, asking to be comforted, pleading for virtue (“Accende lumen sensibus: infunde amorem cordibus: infirma nostri corporis virtute firmans perpeti.”; “Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o’erflow with love; with patience firm and virtue high the weakness of our flesh supply.”), asking for peace and grace. So while our narrator himself doesn’t overtly state that Yolanda asked for grace in this moment, the hymn which she prays to, and which plays as her mother walks in, is in many ways both fulfilling a prayer for grace, and providing prophetic sense of the dangers to come that Yolanda must fortify her woman’s body against with a man’s heart.



Prophecy, Pseudohistory, and Medieval Medievalism in The History of the Kings of Britain

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain the story of Britain’s origins is propelled by a single prophecy, which Geoffrey puts in the mouth of the goddess Diana, the “goddess of woods.” 


My question this week is about how prophecies function in Geoffrey’s text as a simultaneously propelling and stalling force, one which is inextricably linked from the beginning of the text with the non-human world. In this moment where he hears the prophecy about the British Empire, Brutus is placed at the intersection of several different forces: not only the powerful goddess Diana, the powers of ritualistic sacrifice, religious power, and the forces of the non-human world (sitting and falling asleep on the hart’s skin), but also the powers of genre and the narrative thrust of prophecy and inevitable (pseudo) history. In this moment, when he wonders whether everything he saw from the goddess was just a dream, teeters on the edge of his own genre. However, it is clear to Geoffreys readership who Brutus is; there is no suspense in this moment, no surprise about whether or not he will follow the prophecy, since any of the many readers of Geoffrey would be aware of the isle of Briton that stands as evidence of this prophecy’s fulfillment.

There is, of course, another moment in the History where prophecies become prominent. In Book VII Geoffrey interrupts the narrative flow of his history with an entire book of the prophecies of Merlin. He says he does so at the behest of Alexander bishop of Lincoln. These prophecies also link together history and magic, religion and the non-human and national identity (also DRAGONS!). 

So what is the roll of prophecies like this in pseudohistory when constructing ideas of national identity? Is it to propel the inevitability of the narrative? Prophecy is something with heavy religious connotations, specifically biblical. This emphasis on prophecy is an attempt to link Britain’s history with religious validity and also with the natural world. Tracing the ways in which these prophecies function as a legitimizing tool will help us

“Come Home with Me” “…who are you?”

In the musical Hadestown, when Orpheus first sees Eurydice, Hermes asks Orpheus if he wants to talk to her, warning him not to “come on too strong.” Orpheus, who as has already been introduced in the show as a boy “working on a song,” does not heed Hermes’ advice, but instead turns to Eurydice and says:

Come home with me
Who are you?
The man who’s gonna marry you
I’m Orpheus
Is he always like this?
I’m Eurydice
Your name is like a melody
A singer, is that what you are?
I also play the lyre
Oh a liar and a player too
I’ve met too many men like you
         The title of this song is “Come Home with Me”, and in many ways, it, as well as the following song “Wedding Song” fit the genre of (male-authored) Troubadour poetry. Orpheus, in this first introduction to his lady-love, inadvertently reveals his identity as a singer and lyre-player just by paying attention to the way her “name is like a melody,” but the first thing he says to her is a plea worded as a command: “Come home with me,” and when she asks who he is, his response is “the man who’s gonna marry you.” It is Eurydice who identifies him as a “singer…a liar and a player too,” something which she is able to do because she has “known too many men like you.”
          I begin with a discussion of Hadestown in a response about the “Songs of the Women Troubadours” in an effort to parse how the female Troubadours both participate in and question the troubadour genre. Similarly to Eurydice, whose first words to Orpheus’ plea to “come home with me” is the question “Who are you?”, so too the women Troubadours seem to perform their “come home with me” genre, and then interrogate that genre. Women Troubadours turn to the Troubadour genre and ask “Who are you?”
          One example of this can be seen in poem #23, which is a dialogue between Domna H. and Rofin (“Rofin, digatz m’ades de quors”). In this poem, two women have a conversation about whether or not men would-be-lovers should be made to swear that “before she lets them lie beside her / that they’ll embrace and kiss her / and do no more than that” (6-8). Of the two men, one swears readily because oaths mean nothing to him, and the other is so worried he won’t be able to keep his word that he doesn’t swear at all. Which man does better? is the question at the heart of the poem. The first woman, in defense of the man who cannot control himself, mounts an argument that might be a quote straight from a male Troubadour poem:

Rofin, a true lover does not let fear

prevent him from enjoying pleasure,

because desire and excessive ardor

presses him so that, despite the pleas

of his honored lady,

he can’t contain or rule himself.

For as he lies with her and gazes at her, heartfelt love becomes so hot

that he can neither hear, see

nor know if he does harm or good. (21-30)


This is a “come home with me” quote, but this time in the mouth of a woman speaking to another woman. Men cannot rule themselves, but rather lovesickness so sends them into a humoral imbalance that, medically speaking, makes them blind and deaf to the harm or good he does to his lady. Despite her pleas, a “true lover” cannot contain himself. This of course reeks of rapey-vibes to a modern audience, but in the context of this poem and the hypothetical scenario that one female speaker presents to another, these lines instead become a pseudo-performance of Troubadour poetry which a second female voice is then given the opportunity to answer. Domna H responds with the equivalent of Eurydice’s “Who are you?”:

Lady, it seems to me a lover

errs if, loving from the heart

he’s pleased by any joy

that does no honor to his lady. (31-4)


In this moment, the female response to Troubadour poetry is heard. “It seems to me a lover errs” is a critique of the genre these women troubadours are aware they are participating in. Echoes of this “who are you?” can be heard in many of the other poems, where women are given the opportunity to protest the pains of childbirth and the effects such an ordeal has on the female body (#27), or protest laws that strip them of their jewels (#29) among other things. #28 describes a “sermonizer” who speaks ill of unbelievers and women alike, spouting antifeminist literature, to which the female speaker responds she

“can’t help it: I must speak my mind

about the thing that is confounding my hear,

and it will give me pain and grief to write,

for I say those old-time troubadours,

who are dead now, gravely sinned,

putting the world in confusion,

when they openly spoke ill of women” (1-7)


So let’s return to Hadestown. While in the original myth, Eurydice ends up trapped in the underworld because she has died, in the musical by Anais Mitchell (a woman writer participating in an ongoing tradition of myth-adaptation and musical theater) Eurydice voluntarily goes to work in Hadestown in order to have enough money to eat and escape the storms that ravage the surface world. She calls out for Orpheus before she goes, but Orpheus doesn’t hear her, because so consumed with writing his song. While I don’t mean to imply that the women-authored troubadour poetry is as simple as “previously ignored women finally voice their opinion,” (especially since the question of authentic female authorship is so fraught), I do think it’s useful to think about these poems as a disruption of and intrusion upon the Troubadour genre with a single question “who are you?” as well as a somewhat cynical answer: “Oh, a liar and a player too. I’ve met too many men like you.”

Take Off Your Textiles pt. 2 – Yde et Olive, the remix

Approximately three years ago, in the Spring of 2016, I first encountered the text of Yde et Olive in the Middle English translation of the Book of Duke Huon de Bordeaux , about which I wrote a paper entitled “Take Off Your Textiles: Genre and Gender Fluidity in Yde et Olive.” I had known the text was originally in French, but there was no modern English translation directly from the French at the time, so my paper focused primarily on the Middle English text.  I primarily wrote about the ways in which Yde’s genderfluid body allows her to navigate multiple genres successfully, but how her female body also causes the breakdown of those genres because it is ultimately unable to perform the actions necessary to fulfill the narrative impulse of both genres:

The story of Yde et Olive complicates notions of gender and genre right from the beginning of the narrative. Existing as part of a larger genealogical epic, the text is disrupted immediately by the King of Florence’s declaration that, following the death of his wife, he will marry his daughter, Yde, who is so “beautyfull” that “he coud never be satysfyed with lokyng upon her” but rather “often tymes he kyssed her holdynge her in his armes” (692). In order to save Yde from the incestuous desires and “dyshordenate love of her father,” Yde’s assistant lady and one of the king’s lords decide that, “for the saluacyon of the damoyselles body,” they will dress Yde in “the aparaile of a man” (696-8). Yde accepts this plan as the only method of salvation, and that night, after she strips herself of her “mantell of scarlet,” she “arrayed her in the mannes aparayle” – including a “sworde” which she “gyrte…abought her” – and escapes through her window and out into the garden (699). It is at this moment that the trajectory of the text changes. Indeed, by stripping herself of her “mantell” and dressing in man’s clothes, Yde has not only taken on a new gender performance, but a new genre; that is, by stripping herself of her original textile and donning a new one, she has donned a new text as well: the knightly narrative of the chivalric romance or chanson de geste. (1)

Now having read the translation from the French, I still read the poem much the same way. However, a key difference I noticed was in this original moment of cross-dressing. In the French poem, it seems that Yde comes up with the cross-dressing idea all by herself, and dons men’s clothes, with the notable omission of the phallic sword:

“The young woman hurried out of the bath;

She quickly put on some men’s clothing,

And so disguised,

She went to the stables and made for a destrier” (340-43).

Perhaps in the Middle English mention of girting herself with the sword is meant to emphasize the phallic power that the destrier implies, and the sword is meant to carry with it the same knightly connotations as the warhorse Yde chooses as her steed in her escape. Why would the Middle English translation offset the cross-dressing idea on an assistant lady, rather than let it be Yde’s own idea? What consequences does this have on my understanding of genre acting on Yde’s body (in the Middle English version)? The other thing the French poem makes repeated mention of – Yde’s lack of breast development – is omitted from the Middle English poem as well, as are the detailed descriptions of Yde’s body. Throughout the French poem we are reminded of Yde’s beauty – she is called “fair Yde” and “beautiful Yde,” even while she is dressed in men’s clothing and performing masculinity successfully. Ultimately, the French poem seems to insist on her assigned gender a bit more incessantly than the Middle English. My lack of French literacy also leads me to wonder, is there much pronoun confusion in the French? Because in the Middle English, Yde is referred to by masculine pronouns when she performs masculine actions, and this doesn’t break down until Yde tells Olive the truth and the text calls her “she” again.

Despite these differences, I still see the conflict in Yde et Olive as one very much motivated by contrasting generic constraints, both of which rely on Yde’s “gender confirmation” in order to be resolved. Unlike other medieval trans narratives like Roman de Silence, where Silence himself is very insistent on his male identity, Yde’s genderfluid body seems comfortable inhabiting both roles, and chooses the masculine performance out of necessity rather than preference. I said it better in 2016, so I will conclude with a final quote from my previous essay:

“Thus, genre and gender are inscrutably linked in this narrative, and Yde’s proficient gender fluidity allows her to embody or “wear” several genres/narratives/textiles simultaneously. However, as the text continues, Yde’s gender fluidity, by allowing for the coexistence of these contradictory narratives (that of a princess in a genealogical epic and that of a knight in a romance), becomes problematic, creating such tension and instability in the text that it begins to fray at the edges. Indeed, the tension between these narratives grows as the text continues, until conflict is brought to a head through the inevitable same-sex relationship between Yde and Olive when the Olive, the daughter of the Emperor of Rome, falls in love with and marries Yde, as per the generic imperative of the romance. At this point, Yde’s gender fluidity (and the dual narratives made possible by it) has become so threatening and problematic that it cannot be sustained by the text, but rather has tied the text into such a knot that the generic imperatives of neither genre can be resolved or fulfilled, and the entire text threatens to collapse. Ultimately, the text cannot sustain both narratives and, in an effort to enforce stability and close the gaping holes in the text, the narrator solves the “problem” by having an angel appear and “chaunge” Yde “in nature” and make her “a parfeyght man as all other be with out any difference,” thus reinstituting both normativity and narrative continuity simultaneously (729). Thus, it is the layering of textile upon textile, narrative upon narrative, which ultimately causes Yde’s text to disintegrate, so that the only way to resolve the conflict between genres is by rejecting Yde’s gender fluidity, stripping him of his textiles, his “clothes,” so that his “naked” body is exposed and “shewed” to be consonant with that which it performs (727).

The first textile which Yde must wear is that of the original genealogical narrative which the text is based around – one might say, fittingly, it is the narrative she was “born with,” or, at least “born into.” The reproductive imperative is imbedded in the very genre in which the Yde’s narrative takes place, since Yde et Olive is “part of an epic cycle structured around genealogy” (Watt 267). Being a story of kings, the continuation of the royal line and the production of an heir are vital to the stability of the kingdom, and thus to the narrative…Thus, the gender fluidity and the consequential same sex relationship must be rejected –  i.e. made normative – because it threatens the very narrative and genre in and through which it resides. The least problematic sex for Yde to be is male since, by changing sex, Yde not only escapes the “dysordynate” desires of her father, but both the genealogical and chanson de geste narratives are able to be successfully completed. Thus, Yde’s gender fluidity, in the end, must be rejected, stripped of its textiles, and forced within the restrictions set up by the genre in which she resides.

She’s with the Giants, He’s with the Ghouls, Can it be any more Obvious?

After being cast into the Valley of Ghouls at his deceptive mother’s command, King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan finds himself in a “land of spacious gardens and spreading plants and meadows” full of birds and trees and rivers and fruit and fragrances (135). He sleeps in a tree over night to protect himself from the Ghouls. The next morning he sees deformed Ghouls coming to the tree, meets an old woman who is their ruler, refuses to eat the dead deer the old woman offers him, and eats lotus fruit instead. He then asks the old woman “Where have you come from, and what are these ghouls?” and, through the woman’s story, he learns about the cross-species and diseased origins of the monsters. The woman who had given birth to the Ghouls was “afflicted with an itch on her private parts,” and in order to fall asleep she sought relief from the itch by going into her private orchard to scratch herself with sticks or lift up her skirt and letting the air assuage her. It was this disease which caused her to fall asleep with her legs raised against a tree, so that when a he-wolf entered the garden he has “access” to her body, and though “she had woken while the wolf was with her” she “dared not move for fear the beast should kill her.” So the wolf’s seed combined in her womb with the smoke from a burnt stick she used to itch herself, and combined still further that night with her husband’s seed. The result: Ghouls – ugly, deformed, vaguely humanoid creatures with fangs, large ears, sharp nails, covered in hair “like the quills of a porcupine,” who want to kill and eat humans. 

The pseudo-chemistry of this moment seemingly operates by unspoken laws, as if King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not only learning the origins of Ghouls, but also how to make one; of course this is how monsters are made, in a diseased and afflicted vagina (too accessible, too penetrable) as a mixture of human, non-human, and other (burnt plant) organic materials. As if the wife were a petri dish where the genetic experimentation and biological concerns of the sira can be played out. This origin story of monstrous conception and birth follows on the heels of King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan’s refusal to eat meat – Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, the epitome of the virtuous king we are meant to admire, chooses a vegetarian diet, refusing to allow the meat of the deer to enter his body, just before he is told the story of a woman who was not so careful about regulating her orifices. Of course, Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan has his own bizarre origins, being found as an abandoned child suckling on a the teet gazelle. When  King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is first found, the hunter who found him wondered what manner of gazelle it was “that gives birth to a human baby” (16). His first given name is “Wahsh al-Fala,” which we are told means “Beast of the Wild.” There is clearly some logic by which the human, plant, and animal worlds ought or ought not to mix. Suckling on the teet of a wild gazelle is okay, and a gazelle giving birth to a human is a wonder or a marvel, not a transgression. Using a not-burn stick or orchard trees to help relieve one’s painful genital itch is also acceptable, but being raped by wolves due to one’s disease or scratching oneself with a stick filled with smoke is sure to result in monstrous birth. 

Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is not the only one to be cast into a valley of monsters in this moment of course. His wife Shama had already been cast into the Valley of Giants, where she is almost executed for her “small stature; for he supposed she was deformed because she had offended their god,” the sheep, for whom she is gifted two chickens and bread every day for taking care of (134). Both King Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan and Shama’s experiences very clearly intersect bodily difference, disease, gender, food, political violence, and the non-human. It’s difficult to track the logic of these encounters – both are gifted with food, Shama is thought to be deformed and Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan hears the story of a diseased woman, the giants worship a sheep as their god and the ghouls credit a wolf, a burnt stick, and a disease with their creation. Parsing out the relationships in these two episodes – as I have attempted to start to do here – will I believe help piece together the logic by which the human interacts with the non-human world in the sira.

Deformed Trees and a Patchwork Eden

(This isn’t my best work – it’s very jumbled, waxes fairly poetic in moments, and it lacks a clear argument, but I was exhausted after a full day of teaching (up since 6am, 3 hours teaching and over 4 hours of commute, three buses, a subway, and the PATH, to work at two different schools because I’m a poor grad student whose work is exploited) and I have a conference paper I’m writing for this weekend’s ISSM conference (forthcoming) so I didn’t have as much time to work on this response as I would have wanted. All the same; enjoy my ramblings!)

The Prologue to Matthew of Vendome’s Ars Versificatoria, ends with an indignant take down of false versifiers, who Matthew calls the “stitchers of patches,” and who he says should be “excluded from examining this work.” These are versifiers who “rely on title alone and pant according to the meter of the verses rather than the beauty of what is in the meter. Some merely rearrange the patchwork line which throws the shadow of a trunk, not of foliage, and strive to pound into a unit and aggregate of triffles, which because of their own deformity do not dare to go out in public, and seem to take turns among themselves in shouting: We are numbers only, born to consume the fruits / of the earth.” Here false versifiers are seen, hunched over with scissors in hand, cutting up verses and stitching them together to match meter, creating deformed and unnatural and barren silhouettes, shadows that do not dare to be seen in public due to their ugliness. This book is not for them.

This description of the “stitcher of patches” and their patchwork verse draws on the language of trees, foliage, deformity and disability. There is a tangled web of images here that seems to make several different points about verse at once. The first point is that verse and the natural world are linked in some way. A patchwork verse, such as the one described here, is “the shadow of a trunk, but not of foliage” – a more beautiful verse would presumably be a tree with foliage, or at least the shadow of one. Another point the end of the prologue makes is that, most likely because of their relationship to the natural world and the natural order, verse contain some inherent “beauty of what is in the meter.” This beauty can, however, be butchered; this is the next point. What I suppose would be deemed “unnatural” verse is also possible; verse can become stitched patchwork, a textile that is cut up and sown back together. This verse is so ashamed of its own de-formity (that is, literally the removal (de-) of its form) that it hides from the public, is embarrassed and crying out in hunger, recognizing its base state as no more than numbers. Meter, stripped of its inherent beauty, is a shame-filled grouping of numbers.

Shame, patchwork, stitching, fruit and foliage all evoke popular post-fall depiction of man. The fall of man when he consumed the fruit of the earth causes him to feel shame, stitch foliage together in a patchwork, and cry about his base nature as he is kicked out of the beauty of Eden. This is when disorder and deformity entered the world. It seems that the argument Matthew may be making about verse is that there is a “pre-” and “post-fall” verse, and the “stitchers of patches” – those who would reduce meter to numbers and sew for it a covering of foliage – ought to be kicked out of the “Eden,” and “excluded from examining this work.”

I feel as though I may be over-reading this metaphor a bit, but nevertheless there are some provocative claims being made in this moment. Is verse like a tree? Like a patchwork? Like a deformed body? Is verse human? Is it capable of falling? Clearly it can lose its form. Is the verse a body? And if so, is it (imagined as) a human one? Or rather is it an aggregate of plant, animal, form and deformed?  The way in which verse becomes its own microcosm connected to a larger macrocosm of order and disorder, form and deformity, beauty and sin, is a throughline for the instructions of Ars Versificatoria itself – for example, the suggestion in #16 that one begin a verse with “a general idea to which credence is customarily given.” The “general idea” is the connection to a larger order – the verse then follows the beauty of what is in the meter, the beauty of what is in that order.

Birds, Dragons, and Wolves, Oh My!

(I will should be posting weekly on Thursdays my responses for Karl Steel’s Intro to Medieval class Fall 2019, let’s see how this goes!)

In the Volsung Saga, when Sigurd kills the dragon and drinks its blood, he gains the ability to talk to birds: “when the juice sputtered out he touched it with his finger to see whether it was done. He jerked his finger to his mouth, and when the blood from the dragon’s heart touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds. He heard some tits twittering near him in the thicket” (33). Sigurd overhears the birds discussing how he would be foolish not to kill Regin in order to protect himself from harm and take the dragon’s gold for himself, and so he does as they deem wise and cuts of Regin’s head. In his notes on this moment, R.G. Finch acknowledges that the belief that birds could warn about impending danger was widespread in medieval Europe, and that the dragon’s blood’s ability to hear the speech of birds could have derived from the belief in Iceland that eating the heart of a raven could grant the same skill. The saga suggests that animals have a language they communicate in, and that this language is somehow analogous (or, at least, translatable) to human speech. The moment Sigurd understands the birds isn’t described as a skill, but rather as an effect caused by the ingestion of the dragon’s blood (“when…he could”). Once he is able to understand the birds, he overhears them already speaking about him as if he couldn’t hear them. This suggests that the saga assumes birds are watching us always, and conversing or communicating about our choices, having marginal conversations, glossing and interpreting our decisions, whether we can understand their “speech” or not. Sigurd listens to and follows the birds’ advice in this moment, which prompts further questions about the potential consequences of understanding the marginal speech of birds: if we could understand them, would they influence our decisions? And would they do so wisely? Did they advise Sigurd properly? The assumption that the saga makes – that birds converse amongst themselves about human actions – intervenes in the understanding of human/animal relationships with questions of the relative wisdom and knowledge of birds, as well as the function and purpose of that knowledge in human narrative.

The saga makes the suggestion that animals have their own speech multiple times, one of the first being when Sigmund and Sinfjotli wear the wolfskins: “Sigmund and Sinjotli got into the skins, and could not get out of them again – the strange power was there, just as before, and they even howled like wolves, both understanding what was being said” (11). Their inability to understand wolf howls prior to putting on the wolf skin and becoming wolves themselves suggests that wolf howls were always intelligible communication, but that humans do not know that they mean, and they cannot unless they go through some kind of transformation beyond the human. However, the irreversible nature of the skins (the “got into the skins and could not get out of them again”) suggests that the consequences of the change are also irreversible. Sigmund is described as howling “with his wolf’s voice” (11), as if there were many voices he might howl with, the wolf voice being one possible voice in a list of potential voices (including bird voices perhaps). The connection here between wolves and speech may reach back even earlier in the narrative, to the moment that Sigmund bites the tongue off the she-wolf who licks the honey out of his mouth (the wolf who some people believed “was King Siggeri’s mother who had assumed that shape on account of witchcraft and magic”). The connection between tongue and speech is obvious, but whether this moment of mother-wolf transformation and tongue-biting is meant to foreshadow or forewarn Sigmund about the enchanted wolf-skins (the way the birds forewarn Sigurd) is unclear. What is clear is that the saga once again suggests a complex mode of speech and communication that is outside of and marginal to/co-existent with human language, but that the human might gain access to, and which has equal weight in the events of the narrative.

This extra-human communication seems to apply to other human bodies – or, at least, once-human bodies – in the poem as well. The conversation Sigurd has with Fafnir is one that requires a very particular subliteracy, as both Sigurd and Fafnir reference culturally contingent stories in their conversation. Clearly there seems to be some kind of miscommunication, or at least a lack of listening on Sigurd’s part, as Fafnir acknowledges “You’ll not be guided much by what I say” (31). Similarly to the situation with the birds a few lines later, it seems that Fafnir knows something Sigurd doesn’t, and is speaking in a mode that inhibits Sigurd from understanding properly, despite the fact that he (Fafnir) presumably speaks in human language. Similarly to Sinfjolti and Sigmund in the beginning of the saga, Fafnir was also once human, but has undergone a transformation, and this transformation seems to have granted him access to certain kinds of knowledge (specifically about the gold) that Sigurd does not have access to.

The cross-contamination of human and non-human bodies – the consuming of dragon blood, the biting of the wolf tongue, the donning of wolf pelts, etc – disrupts the boundaries of the human and animal bodies in the saga. These boundaries do not seem to be clearly defined by the saga to begin with, however, so rather than suggesting that the poem is anxious about or seeks to enforce this binary, I actually wonder if the saga has an altogether different way of imagining the relationship between the human and the animal, one where human and non-human talk about each other, but just cannot understand what the other is saying.