Thursday, November 12, 2015

Crusading in Disney's Robin Hood

My toddler has been madly in love with Disney's Robin Hood for some time now. So much so, in fact, that she starts dancing if my husband and I start humming or singing Alan-a-Dale's opening song. Needless to say, I've watched the cartoon more than few times over the past several months, and in the process, I noticed something rather interesting/peculiar about the way in which the Third Crusade is imagined and configured therein.

In the cartoon, Richard I is doing what he so often does in various iterations of the Robin Hood story: he's off fighting in the Holy Land, and his absence gives the wicked (but ultimately feckless) Prince John an opportunity to usurp the crown. We know this (albeit deeply fictive) part of the story from an early point in the narrative. However, the actual reason for his crusade is revealed in a conversation between Prince John and Sir Hiss while the two make their way to Nottingham: 

The "real reason," then, for the Third Crusade -- as the film tells it -- is Sir Hiss's hypnotic powers, his ability to brainwash the King into waging holy war. I chatted about this scene with my friend and colleague Bronwen (who also has a toddler quite taken with the film) and she offered that this was a way, perhaps, to "excuse" the English king for waging a religious war that might have appeared vexed at best to contemporary audiences.

This theory seems to be confirmed by the way the film itself opens. The first shot is of a book that opens to the following text:
Long ago, good King Richard of England departed for the holy land on a great crusade. During his absence, Prince John his greedy and treacherous brother, usurped the crown. Robin Hood was the people's only hope. He robbed from the rich to feed the poor. He was beloved by all the people of England. Robin and his merry men hid in Sherwood Forest to... 

Alan-a-Dale takes over the narration at this point, however, and tells his audience that
there's been a heap of legends and tall tales... about Robin Hood. All different too. Well, we folks of the animal kingdom have our own version. It's the story of what really happened in Sherwood Forest. (emphasis mine)
In other words, Alan-a-Dale suggests here that the "book version" to which we're introduced, and in which he ambles about with his lute, is merely one of those "legends and tall tales." As a result, we're invited to question all other iterations of the story, and this invitation creates a space in which to place the aforementioned revelation about Richard's crusade. By implication, then, we're encouraged to understand that Richard's crusade, despite what that first page of the book might tell us, was hardly "great" at all. 

However, a slight wrinkle in this theory presents itself in Little John's boisterous song far later in the film, where he sings of "bonny good King Richard lead[ing] the great crusade he's on." The good people of Nottingham and Sherwood forest, then, perceive the crusade to be virtuous, and clearly have no idea either here (or at the end when Richard returns to England) that the whole campaign was waged because the king was hypnotized. The king fighting a holy war, in other words, doesn't seem to vex our heroes in the slightest.

So what can we make of all of this? Admittedly, Robin Hood was a rather hastily-constructed cartoon, so I do have my doubts over the amount of time the writers spent laboring over this particular plot point. Nevertheless, the representation of crusading (or at least the motivations for it), struck me as compelling, because the contradictory and disjointed allusions to Richard's crusade seem to reveal, if nothing else, a discomfort with the matter of crusading — and perhaps even a desire to find a way to tell a children's version of this story and maintain the heroic status of Richard and Robin Hood without implicitly championing crusading and holy war. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Steinway vs. Ikea

It's been a busy few days/weeks, hence the blog dormancy. I've been slogging away on the book project, and most recently had the immense pleasure of contributing to postmedieval Forum V: The Public Middle Ages. I'll be writing much more about the forum in an upcoming post, but for now wanted to jot down some brief (somewhat rage-induced) thoughts about an article I stumbled upon the other day:

I chanced upon this interview with  Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's CEO, a little while back, and it bothered me deeply for a whole host of reasons. Don't get me wrong. I am hardly anti-online ed, having taught at an online institution for several years and having seen the tangible good it did to the many servicepersons who otherwise would have had a near-to-impossible time getting a college degree. But I developed -- over the course of my time there -- a deep aversion to and distrust of said institution's privileging of quantifiable vs. qualifiable teaching methodologies, not to mention its treatment of students as consumers who can and should dictate the ins and outs of their educational experience -- which resulted, for instance, in the mandatory intro to college-level writing course being shaved down to a mere 8-weeks because, I was told, students just didn't want to take a longer version.

My unease with quantifiable teaching methods being imposed on humanities courses, the quickness with which slow learning is dismissed, and the "student-as-consumer" perspective translates directly into my concerns over Thrun's approach to education. I could go on and on, but will just leave a few thoughts-in-progress here for now:

1. Thrun states in this article that he wants Udacity to be the Uber of education. Both of these companies, "use a network of freelancers paid per piece of work that they perform." He's perfectly content to boast that one such freelancer makes $11k/month at this work, but I'd be very interested to know how the rest of his corps of "adjuncts" fare, especially since we know from recent reports how poorly Uber drivers fare in their own work. He seems either oblivious to or callously dismissive of the ethical implications of this kind of educational model.

2. Thrun also compares Udacity to Ikea, saying the following:
He claims it would be harder to develop such a business in another part of the world and certainly not in an existing academic institution. “People in education are risk averse,” he says. “They want to build Steinways. I like to think of us having the impact Ikea has.”
First, the metaphor doesn't even work. Steinway doesn't build furniture, and Ikea sure as hell doesn't mass produce pianos. But even if that was the case, what he's essentially saying is this: because "academics" value slow and meticulous learning and craftsmanship, he doesn't want them involved. He wants people willing to sign up for his vision of swift, mass-produced education. Udacity's name for its degrees -- nanodegrees -- all but speaks for itself. Now, I'm not trying to vilify what Udacity offers in any wholesale way. There are several examples of how these nanodegrees have served Udacity's students well. I harbor concerns, however, over how his perspective reflects broader attitudes towards higher education -- how it stands as such a clear symptom of much larger and wider-reaching problems, problems that have a direct impact on how the humanities are being devalued at present.

3. The description of academics as "risk-averse" all but makes me froth at the mouth. Not only does it imply/assume that corporate business models can and should be imposed on academia writ large, but it also is wildly insulting in an even broader sense. It creates a hierarchy where the speed with which a degree is earned takes precedence over what is learned along the way, where the end result is of greater value than the learning process, where the quantifiable is always, already of greater worth than the qualifiable.

This points to the central concern I have with Thrun and his mogul/corporate approach to education. Nowhere in this interview does he express an interest in the student's experience at Udacity (beyond the speed with which they earn their nanodegrees). And nowhere is there any consideration of the ethics of the work that they are doing and will do as they venture into their careers. To that end, in labeling brick-and-mortar academics as "risk-averse," he demonstrates his complete misunderstanding (I want so much to believe it's not intentional disregard) for the ways in which slow learning cultivates empathy and, as Marion Turner stresses so beautifully, "encourages us constantly to question assumptions; in particular, perhaps, to question the idea that any part of how we live and how we are is natural, or self-evidently superior."

I sympathize with students attending college right now -- the pressure to make their time in college vocational is real, and I understand all too well why they don't feel as free to pursue their intellectual interests as I did back in the early 2000's. But, I've said it several times here and on social media, and I'll keep adding my voice to the chorus of humanists until I'm blue in the face: the humanities, and the slow learning that they require, teach us how to be decent human beings. They might not teach you how to code, or lead directly to making $100k right out of college, but they can, if you let them, enhance your capacity to move through the world more ethically. We need entrepreneurs, progressive thinkers, start-ups, and boom towns, to be sure. But we also need those same people/organizations/spaces to think past their own proverbial noses to consider the broader ramifications of their actions. I see that lacking out here in Silicon Valley in so many, many ways, which is why I feel such a sense of urgency in my current work (i.e. teaching humanities-based critical thinking courses to incoming freshmen at Stanford, many of whom will never take another humanities course in their time here). And to be blunt, if Thrun had any understanding of what's actually at stake in a college education, and what professors regularly put on the line when they commit to their teaching, he might have hesitated before using that term.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Game of Thrones and Rape Culture

I haven't been able to stop thinking about the way in which the women in this particular season of Game of Thrones have been treated, and I started writing this post several weeks back. I waited (with equal doses of curiosity and dread) to see where things would go, and now that the season finale has aired and I've had a few days to mull things over a bit more, I'm happy to share my thoughts-in-progress on Sansa's now-infamous wedding night (as well a few other moments from the season). Like many, I responded to Sansa's rape in Episode 6 of the current Game of Thrones season with outrage:

For the record, I remain unconvinced by the arguments that Martin's story is simply grittier and more realistic than other high fantasy works and that the fetishistic brutalization of women is therefore necessary in some way. I also stand by my initial argument that this particular scene should not have focused so squarely on Theon's trauma over Sansa's. However, in the past week, and especially after watching the remaining episodes, I've come to reconsider my initial position that this scene is wholly unnecessary. My initial response stemmed from a burgeoning frustration with the show's tendency (which many have already noted) either to invent women solely for the purpose of brutalizing them and/or driving the plots of male characters (i.e. Ros or, to a certain extent, Karsi -- the wildling woman in episode 8) or to turn consensual sex into rape. Sansa's rape marks at least the third major instance of invented rape in the adapted show, and at the time it felt like simple fetishization. I realize that different mediums call for different approaches — that what works on the page does not necessarily translate to the screen. But one of the things I will give Martin credit for is his tendency -- though his world is deeply unkind to its women -- to avoid fetishizing their brutal treatment by leaving at least the majority of the rapes offscreen. This does not minimize their significance but rather, at least from my vantage point, gives them even more impact. These moments and others (I'm thinking in particular of the "discovery" of Reek's identity in the books and how we learn in passing of all he endured before we encounter him) work in a way quite similar to the film Children of Men. As Slavoj Zizek observed of it,
For me, Children of Men, I would say that the true focus ofthe film is there in the background, and it's crucial to leave it as a background. Here comes the true art, Cuaron's. It's the paradox of what I would call this anamorphosis. If you look at the thing too directly at the oppressive social dimension, you don't see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background.
What he's referring to is the film's masterful ability to keep viewers from becoming inured to the horrors of the world the protagonists inhabit. Unlike V for Vendetta, another dystopian film roughly contemporary to Children of Men, the nihilism and absurdity of the world is rarely foregrounded. As a result, it leaves a much deeper, lasting impression. I see Martin doing something similar in his books, and I know for a fact (again, using Children of Men and, hell, even Mad Max: Fury Road as examples) that film can successfully deploy/encourage similar forms of anamorphosis. The Game of Thrones franchise, however, regularly fails to do so.

Nevertheless, the more I've thought about Sansa's Rape and -- more recently -- the Braavos whore house, and the more thoughtful op-eds I've read (especially the one by Amanda Marcott) the more I started to reconsider and question my outrage.

As I interrogating my own reactions to Sansa's rape, it occurred to me that her story arc in the show directly parallels that of Daenerys' in Season 1. Granted, there are notable differences between Khal Drogo and Ramsey Snow, but when you boil the stories down to their essentials, the arcs are all but identical: a young (underage?) woman, subject to the ambitions of the powerful men around her, is forced into marrying a terrifying man she does not love. She is then raped on her wedding night, and is subject to nightly rapes and brutalizations thereafter. She must find ways of reacquiring agency, but she has to do so within the confines of an abusive relationship with wildly uneven power dynamics. Episode 8 made the parallels even clearer, with emphasis placed on Sansa's bruised and battered body and on her entrapment and powerlessness. This runs parallel to the scenes with Daenerys that follow her wedding night, where we bear witness to Khal Drogo forcing himself on her each night, and where Dany's only escape lies in her ability to change him. Let's just pause for a moment to consider how wildly problematic THAT line of thinking is when played out in the real world.

The thing is, while some did voice outrage over Daenerys' rape when the first season aired, that outrage pales in comparison to what we witnessed in reaction to Sansa's rape. And what is more, the scenes with Dany are far more graphic: we actually see more than one post-wedding night rape in that first season, whereas all of Sansa's rapes occur off-screen (at least so far). Added to which, the abusive dynamic is heavily romanticized. We are encouraged – especially since Khal Drogo and Daenery’s “relationship” morphs into a romance as the season continues – to ignore the horrors of Daenery’s marriage as we are in Sansa’s. I think there's also much to be said about the racial/racist implications at play here as well (Khal Drogo might be a rapist, but he and his fellow Dothraki are overtly depicted as simple barbarians who "just don't know better" -- but that's a post for another day).

The same sort of thing happened after both episode nine and ten aired. Most of those commenting about Episode 9, for instance, focused on Shireen's death (and not without reason), but I saw little to no commentary on Meryn Trant as serial pedophile (and child-murderer?). While I found Shireen's death traumatizing to watch, my stomach turned all the more once I realized where Meryn Trant's and Arya's story arc was headed. To recap: he asks the madam in (thinly) veiled terms for an underage girl. She does not have one, but dashes out of the room and enters with a hastily rouged and clearly confused young girl. The girl is roughly the same age and size as Arya, who we are made to fear for given her proximity to Trant and the unfolding scene. Trant roughly escorts the girl out of the room, but not before demanding that the woman have a "fresh" one for him the next day. We are made here to wonder whether he simply wants another virgin to brutalize or whether he plans to kill each child he rapes. 

What is simultaneously horrifying and effective about this scene is how it plays on audiences emotional responses and draws our empathetic limitations into sharp relief. We are encouraged here to pity the girl being led away by Trant but to feel relief that Arya's avoided that same fate. In other words, we are ultimately encouraged, I think, to question (even chide ourselves) for our ability to care for one more than the other. 

There's reason to think that the showrunners are thinking along these lines. Consider the following from James Hibbard's interview with David Weiss:
When I asked Weiss the question that fans surely have tonight: “How could you do that to Shireen?” Weiss philosophically noted you could “flip that question” into a larger debate about how we’re all highly selective about which characters deserve our empathy. Stannis has been burning people alive for seemingly trivial reasons since season 2, yet we’ve still tended to regard him as a great leader—at least, by Westeros standards. 
“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”
Given all of this, our tendency towards disproportionate outrage for some characters over others should give us pause. Why were we (and I include myself here) so much more outraged by Sansa's rape over Daenerys’? Why did we care about Shireen more than the others burned by Stannis and Melisandre? Why Arya over the unnamed girls brutalized by Meryn Trant? The answer, I think, lies in the dynamics of contemporary rape culture. When Dany is raped in Season 1, we had barely gotten to know her. It occurs in Episode 1. We never hear more than the screams of the others sacrificed to the Red God. And the child gifted to Meryn Trant is only onscreen for a minute or two. We have journeyed far longer with Sansa, Shireen, and Arya however, and have born witness to their many traumas. We know them. We know their history, and we know it well. And because of this, we care more.

This should disturb us, because by allowing ourselves to be more outraged on their behalf, we're essentially reinacting a version of the problematic "wives, daughters, mothers" rhetoric that abounds at the moment -- that even our President espouses.  When we allow some rapes and brutalizations to upset us more than others, we're caving into the idea that we only need to care about women insofar as we know them, insofar as they are relevant to us.

What the disproportionate reactions reveal, then, is that we don't need to look further back than the past few weeks for examples of rape culture being perpetuated most palpably by the very people (again, including myself here) who are trying to decry it. As Kathleen Kennedy observes (and if you haven't already, read her fantastic post on Cersei, too):
Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture. Yet modern rape statistics demand that we recognize that it still happens with alarming frequency. The debate on whether Sansa Stark's rape was worth showing hides both how modern medieval culture was and how medieval our own culture still is. As Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote, "This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: It mistakes presence for consent." The sexual reality of Game of Thrones  is, in fact, our own.
The Game of Thrones franchise might have a lot to answer for in terms of how it treats its women, in other words, but so do we.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Middle English Romance and Virtual Pilgrimage

I promised, in my last post, to write a bit about the session in which I participated back in K'zoo and -- now that final grades have been posted -- I'm finally able to sit down and do just that!

To say I had a marvelous time participating in the session, entitled "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," would be an understatement. Presided over by Eve Salisbury and meticulously organized by Gina Marie Hurley, David Eugene Clark, and Justin Marie Baker, the session examined a variety of texts invested in matters of journeying. I was both struck and delighted by the way in which our papers converged with one another and how this led to a lively, fruitful, and energetic Q&A period. I took so much away from our conversations, but one question in particular led me to a revised way of thinking about Isumbras (the romance I just can't quit no matter how hard I might try). An audience member asked, in response to Elizabeth Williamsen's paper (which focused on Isumbras's topography), why there might be so little in the way of landscape descriptions once Isumbras arrives in the Levant -- why, in other words, the hills and other topographical features Williamsen noted disappear at this point in the narrative. As we talked, I offered that this leveling might correspond with something I noted a while back in my article on Isumbras: that Isumbras, especially in versions that refer to the eponymous hero and his sons conquering "three lands" in Christ's name, evokes a T-O map and suggests that the entire world has thus been conquered and Christianized. The leveling of topography, then, might facilitate this kind of visual/symbolic cueing. I never would have thought to consider the landscape of Isumbras and tie it to that portion of my own argument in this way had it not been for Williamsen's paper and the question that it inspired, so I remain deeply grateful for both. 

It was also a complete pleasure getting the chance to present alongside my longtime friend and co-blogger, Kristi. She's published her wonderful paper in an earlier post, and I can't wait to see where she goes from here with the topic. 

As for my own paper, the ideas are largely nascent and, especially in light of all that still want/need to tease out and all that I took away from the session, I might try to get this into article form sometime in the future. For now though, I'm happy to share my initial ideas on the topic and would more than welcome any thoughts and comments that you might have! 


Virtual Pilgrimage and Middle English Romance

In 1358, Giovanni Mandelli invited Petrarch on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Fears of either dying or becoming ill at sea caused him to decline the offer, and Petrarch decided instead to go virtual. He composed an intinerary to the Holy Land in lieu of a physical journey, in which he announces his plans to “complete a very long journey in a concise style” (trans. Cachey, 1.0).  Petrarch’s Itinerarium is often cited as an example of the widespread medieval phenomenon of virtual pilgrimage, a practice rooted in the traditions of the Desert Fathers and one that became enduringly popular in the cultural landscape of medieval Europe.
          While reenacted pilgrimages (such as those created and conducted by the convent of St. Katherine’s at Augsburg) were popular, written virtual pilgrimages enjoyed considerable pervasiveness.1 As Suzanne M. Yeager observes, several well known medieval English writers (Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Richard Role, Walter Hilton) participated in this tradition (14).  It can even be glimpsed in the writings of Matthew Paris who, according to Daniel Connolly, intended the Chronica Majora, especially its maps, to be an “imaginative peregrination for readers who never intended to leave home.”  Moreover, lists of holy sites in Rome and the Holy Land, such as the one penned by John Capgrave, were likely used in both devotional and practical contexts (Swanson, 240).  And even prayer rolls like the Blairs 9 roll devoted to the arma Christi could be used for virtual pilgrimage purposes as well (see Newhauser and Russell).
            This form of meditative travel, as Suzanne Yeager and others have observed, was considered as valid as actual peregrinations, and I would offer that this legitimization of virtual travel affected the representation of pilgrimage (martial or otherwise) in late Middle English literature. Moreover, I suspect that these texts could, in and of themselves, have offered meditative opportunities that run parallel to, and might even incorporate aspects of, the practice of virtual pilgrimage. The generic valence of romances such as Sir Isumbras, Sir Gowther, and Sir Perceval of Galles have long been noted, and I offer here that one reason for their fluidity may lie in their allusions to and encouragement of virtual, meditative travel. In other words, I argue here that the inclusion of pilgrimage contributed to the generic valence of these romances, which allowed them to circulate easily in both secular and devotional contexts. These texts, in the end, suggest that these very reading practices – for entertainment and for spiritual instruction -- were far from mutually exclusive.
            On the surface, Sir Gowther, Sir Perceval of Galles, and Sir Isumbras  a small sampling of Middle English romance that include pilgrimage in their narratives – have wildly different plots, and I’ll just briefly summarize them so that their treatment of pilgrimage is made as clear as possible. Gowther tells the story of an unlikely hero: a child sired by an incubus (the same one, it turns out, who sired Merlin) who grows with unnatural, diabolic speed, bites off the nipples of wet nurses, and rapes and murders nuns. Upon discovering his demonic parentage, he vows to learn “anodur lare” and embarks on a pilgrimage to Rome. The Pope orders him to wander as a mute pilgrim who can only eat from the mouths of dogs until he receives word that he has been redeemed.  His salvific journey culminates in a three-day tournament against a marauding Sultan, and at lay’s end he is hailed as a hero, an emperor, and a worker of miracles.
            Like Gowther, Sir Perceval of Galles positions its eponymous hero outside the bounds of acceptable chivalric society; he is, however, a “fool of the field” — a far more harmless (however clueless) nobleman who must learn how to behave in courtly society, and, among other things, learn to distinguish a pregnant mare from a stallion. His story centers around this process of acculturation, one that includes a battle against a marauding Sultan, marriage to a noble woman (the queen of Maydenlande) and, crucially, his quest (cast very much as a form of pilgrimage) to reunite and rescue his mother, who he abandoned in order to reinter the civilized world. His story ends in the Holy Land, where he dies fighting on crusade, but only after he has successfully established his kingdom and helped restore his mother’s sanity.
Isumbras, by contrast, tells the story of a knight in good social standing at the outset of the hero’s eponymous romance, but he is punished by God for prioritizing secular over spiritual gains. He loses all of his worldly possessions (after choosing to suffer early rather than late in his life for his sins), and he and his family deliberately embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one that gradually takes the shape of a crusade. Isumbras’ sons are lost to him along the way (kidnapped either marauding beasts or an angel depending on the version), and his wife is kidnapped by a Sultan on his way to lay siege to Christian territory. Isumbras’s redemptive journey requires that he defeat . . . wait for it . . . a marauding Sultan, seek absolution in the Holy Land itself and then reunite with his wife in the Levant. He becomes a king of the now-deceased Sultan’s territory, and his sons miraculously appear as he and his wife are about to die in battle against an army of 30,000 rebellious Saracen subjects. The family destroys the army and goes on to conquer other Levantine lands in Christ’s name.
Though their plots are quite different, their treatment of pilgrimage and redemption are strikingly convergent. Each of our heroes, for instance, decides at a crucial juncture to embark on a pilgrimage. Gowther makes this decision about a third of the way into the lay, and all that comes before it works to emphasize the unlikeliness, if not miraculousness, of this moment. The narrative lurches forward with considerable speed at this point, with Gowther’s pilgrimage to Rome barely described before he arrives and meets with the Pope. Given the gravity of his crimes, this swift pilgrimage account fails to satisfy (it’s not enough to attone for what he’s done) and what follows is hardly surprising: the Pope promises him absolution, but only after Gowther continues his penitent journey and earns his redemption. Isumbras, by contrast, vows to journey to Jerusalem far earlier in the narrative. He is introduced to us as a valiant and honorable lord, but it he is warned in the opening passage of the romance that he has privileged earthly gain overmuch. Isumbras, after losing all of his possessions, kneels down, carves a cross into his shoulder and vows to journey to Jerusalem with his family. Perceval of Galles, in turn, embarks on a pilgrimage to rescue his mother shortly after defending Maidenland against a Sultan (which results in his marrying the besieged princess and becoming both a knight of Arthur’s court and a king). His journey takes the form of a penitential pilgrimage as away for atoning for his negligence; he insists both on wearing  goatskin rather than armor and on walking on foot rather than riding his horse.
All three heroes, in other words, are called to jettison their earthly identities in order to completely atone for their sins.  Perceval, as this last passage suggests, eradicates what Jeffrey Cohen identifies as the “inhuman circuit” of horse, armor, and man, that makes him a knight in the first place; Gowther journeys to Rome on a pilgrimage for the sole intent of ridding himself of and atoning for his diabolic identity and is forced into muteness and near-complete subservience in order to guarantee his redemption, and Isumbras loses everything save the clothes on his back, with both him and his family turned into begging pilgrims, bereft of home and social status. Each hero, however, eventually reforges their identity – quite literally for Isumbras (he joins a troupe of smithies and crafts a set of armor for himself) -- in ways complementary to the salvation that they seek. And I think it is crucial that this process of redemption and ascension back up the social ladder hinges, for all three heroes, on martial victories over a Sultan. This move allows each romance to echo a particular brand of virtual pilgrimage: “the crusade of the soul,” a term coined by Suzanne Yeager to refer to texts that actively encourage virtual pilgrims to “besiege Jerusalem in their minds” (13). Crusades to Jerusalem were all but impossible to launch during the time in which these romances circulated, and as I have observed elsewhere (and as others have observed too), this was also a time that witnessed the encroachment of the Turkish Empire on the borders of Eastern Christendom, which resulted in considerable amounts of anxiety throughout Western Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. These moments then -- Perceval’s defeat of the Sultan and his battle with the Sultan’s monstrous brother, Gowther’s crusade in miniature against a Sultan, one where we literally witness his purification through the changing colors (black, to red, to white) of his armor; to Isumbras’ numerous encounters and victories over Saracen enemies – encourage a similar form of meditative holy war by inviting audiences to envision and vicariously participate in such victories.
In addition to being cast – either partially or completely – as crusades, each of the hero’s journeys takes the form of a labyrinth, which is, in and of itself a form of virtual pilgrimage. When you first enter a labyrinth, like the one on the floor of Chartres cathedral, you walk directly towards the center only to be swiftly swung out to the very borders of the circle. You think that your journey will be an easy one, only to find yourself at the periphery. This process repeats itself over and over until, at long last, you reach the center and the end of your journey. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth offers up no tricks or false endings. There is only one, inexorable conclusion to your wandering, you just have to persevere to reach it. The same, in many respects can be said of each of the romances I just described. In Gowther, for instance, the narrator hastily tells of Gowther learning of his demonic parentage, his decision to embark on a pilgrimage, and his meeting in Rome with the pope – all of these events take places in a mere 71 lines, whereas the next four hundred lines or so are devoted to his continued penitential journey, which lurches forwards and backwards as he wends his way towards salvation.
Perceval’s process of acculturation and, importantly, his process of correctly sorting out his spiritual and earthly priorities mirrors this labyrinthine structure as well. He consistently makes headway in his efforts to adhere to court customs and behaviors in the early episodes of the romance, only to make additional blunders that require correcting. And even once he’s established himself as a husband, member of Arthur’s court, and king (having defeated a Sultan and been knighted by Arthur), he remembers his abandoned mother and must jettison all of these courtly accouterments and statuses in order to right the wrongs he did to her. And then, once he recovers his mother and reinstates her at his royal court, he journeys off to die on crusade in the Holy Land.  In short, Perceval’s is a journey towards a proper sense of spiritual and earthly prioritization. He begins his journey squarely focused on the latter and, through a series of forward and backwards movements, wends his way towards the former. His would be an incomplete journey/pilgrimage without his crusade and death quest to the Holy Land.
Of the three, Isumbras perhaps mirrors the labyrinth most closely. While his life — initially so calm and peaceful (even complacent) — is rapidly destabilized, the journey he undertakes inexorably leads him to a state of absolution, a spiritual prosperity mirrored in his ascension to kingship and the reunion of his family. Like a wanderer in the labyrinth, Isumbras is flung to the far edge of his faith – he, like Gowther, is forced into a state of complete abjection -- and has to slowly find his way back to his center, and further, figure out what belongs in that center to begin with. Along the way, he – like Perceval and Gowther -- models the process of a penitent pilgrim for audiences of the story, and offers opportunities for reflection on the tensions between the earthly and spiritual priorities that all men must reckon with.
Each of these romances, which do overlap with one another in extant manuscripts (both Isumbras and Perceval of Galles appear in the Lincoln Thornton, and both Isumbras and Gowther appear in MS Advocates 19.3.1), proffer stories of spiritual redemption that stress – through a variety of convergent episodes and themes – the need to keep ones’ spiritual and earthly priorities in check. They also reveal that no one – whether the most diabolical or the most upstanding – can escape the need to embark on this kind of journey. Their stories are inherently disruptive, because – while, based on the provenances of the MSS that include them, they would have been read in secular mercantile/courtly setting -- they point an ultimately condemning finger at the trappings of earthly (and specifically noble/courtly) life. They are, in this sense, operating in ways quite similar to the Grail Quest in Malory’s Morte, which is ultimately a death quest that – through its requirement that Knight’s seek spiritual over earthly gain – obliterates the gravitational pull that Camelot had earlier enjoyed. Each, in the end, proffers a similar message – through their emphasis on pilgrimage and its redemptive potential -- about how crucial it is not to hold secular gains higher than the spiritual.

1 For more on the nuns of Augsburg and their virtual pilgrimage practices, see Ehrenschwendtner's "Virtual Pilgrimages." 


Cachey, Theodore J. (ed. and trans.). Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land: Itinerary to the Sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Connolly, Daniel. "Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris." The Art Bulletin (December 1999): 598-622.

Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. "Virtual Pilgrimages: Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine's Convent, Augsburg." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (January 2009): 45-73.

Newhauser, Richard C. and Arthur J. Russell. "Mapping Virtual Pilgrimage in an Early Fifteenth Century Arma Christi Roll." In The Arma Christi in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture.  Eds. Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. 83-112.

Swanson, R. N. Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? Cambridge UP, 2011.

Yeager, Suzanne M. Jerusalem in Medieval Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing Across Time and Space: My Paper about Elaine of Astolat at Kalamazoo 2015

*Before you read my Kalamazoo post, check out Kate's excellent Kalamazoo 2015 Round-up.*

I am just now recovering from the joyful exhaustion that characterizes the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Each year brings a more hectic schedule of events and reunions to the congress, with more people to see and more people I don't see enough. It always reminds me how lucky I am to be a part of such a wonderful and inclusive academic community. This congress was especially delightful and especially tiring. It's been a busy year for me so far. For those who don't yet know, I have some exciting news -- I've accepted a tenure-track position at Lyndon State College in Vermont, and I am focusing on finishing my dissertation and preparing to move. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that my Kalamazoo paper dealt with anxieties about writing and traveling. I presented on Elaine of Astolat, a woman who goes to great lengths to ensure that her words travel where/how she wants them to even after her death. I presented on a panel called "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," presided over by Eve Salisbury and organized by David Eugene Clark, Gina Marie Hurley, and Justin Lynn Barker. My panel was fantastic, featuring my co-blogger Leila (Kate) Norako, who presented on Virtual Pilgrimage, Elizabeth A. Williamsen, who presented on Sir Isumbras, and Amber Dove-Clark, who presented on Guy of Warwick.

My paper was called "Ascolat to Camelot, Guildford to Winchester: Narrative Travel in Malory’s Morte d'Arthur," and I've only just begin thinking on the topic. The q and a really gave me a lot of ideas, so the paper I give you here only represents my initial sketches on the geotemporalty in Elaine's story. Any ideas, questions, or critiques would be very welcome.

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Arthur Rackham image (1917)
courtesy of the Camelot Project
Elaine of Astolat may be dead, but she seems to be everywhere. Even as I speak, she is wending her watery way across the walls of museums, poster stores, and college dorm rooms worldwide. Her mythic status both fixes and unfixes her in time, allowing her to be always setting out for Camelot, always floating there, always arriving. She lives in the romance world and moves in romance time. Yet Malory's version of her tale connects her romance rivertrip from Ascolat to Camelot with real places, as Malory clarifies that Ascolat corresponds to contemporary Guildford and Camelot to Winchester. Elaine’s journey is a moment of geographical specificity in a text that often unfolds in a geotemporal haze. Her journey, despite its more fantastical elements, is granted a sense of real possibility, since the trip from Guildford to Winchester can be traced on a map. Guildford and Ascolat share the same ground, bringing the romance world and the historical world into startling proximity. Ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth, and perhaps before, Arthurian narrative has been sitting on the line between history and literature. How many of us have received questions from well-meaning friends and family members about whether or not Arthur was real? But the dynamic tension between history and romance takes new significance in Malory's version of Elaine's story, since her journey collapses clear boundaries between image and word, passive and active, here and gone.

I connect this overlapping with medieval world maps, in which historical timelines are arranged geographically, the meaning of each piece of text rooted in spatial relation to other pieces of text. (Here's where Lot's Wife looked back, here's where Alexander the Great camped, etc. [You can find more of my thoughts on medieval maps here and here.]) The visual and narrative are mutually constitutive on these mappae mundi. In Malory, space and time collapse in ways similar to medieval maps, as Elaine’s body and letter are inextricable as she moves through a romance landscape that looks very much like a real one (or, perhaps, a real landscape that looks like romance). Multiple geographies and temporalities overlap as she becomes both visual spectacle and narrative conduit. She chooses to travel by river, a linear, teleological mode of transportation in which currents lead to her destination. She moves into a center of power, and yet asserts her own version of events so strongly that they are literally set in stone on her tomb. I contend that the simultaneity of multiple geographic and temporal modes in Elaine’s story call attention to the complicated and contradictory way in which her most powerful moment is also the end of her life, her most visible moment is also the pinnacle of her narrative authority. The fact that Elaine is most active and authoritative when she is dead and unable to move or speak works well with the convergence of historical and mythic time, since she is static and in motion, an image and a narrative. She embodies her letter, and her body and her story find their resting place in Camelot.

Though Elaine’s story is linear in that she floats from one location to another, Malory’s telling is also cyclical. (Again, like the world maps, which presented a linear narrative in a spatial way.) In essence, we get her story three times (at least) and in different ways. As soon as we meet her, Malory tells us that “she keste such a love unto sir Launcelot that she cowde never withdraw hir loove, wherefore she dyed,” giving us the tragic end to her story before it even begins (623). This particular Elaine exists inside the larger myth of the fair maiden of Astolat. There is thus a cyclical quality to this narrative defined by clear teleology. The tale, which itself has been retold, is retold in the text. The first version is simply part of her introduction, but important because it renders her introduction narrative rather than visual. We learn who she is and what she does (and notice how active these verbs are — she cast her love, she died), but not what she looks like. And, for the first time in her tradition, we get a name for her character, which allows her a subject position to go with all those active verbs. 

As we continue with the largest portion of the narrative, Elaine consistently communicates her own thoughts and wishes. She tells Launcelot (and Gawain, and everyone else, for that matter) directly of her love. She asks Launcelot to wear her favor, and later asks him to be her husband ... or at least her lover. She seeks him in a quest when she takes over Gawain's search, and then she directly interacts with his body as she heals it. Even as she performs the more traditionally feminine role of healer, she is only able to do so because she has taken on a knight's quest given by King Arthur himself. Launcelot's body is the object of both her quest and of her healing. Though her most famous (and most illustrated) voyage is her post-mortem one, she also seeks Launcelot on land (while alive) and succeeds in reaching him where Gawain fails.

Launcelot tries to give her options other than death, but she'll have none of it. He, not seeing the insult in his offer, attempts to provide her with a dowry to marry another, but she responds matter-of-factly: "Alas! Than', seyde she, 'I must dye for youre love'" (638). Her assertion troubles the world of the romance, since she is not imperiled in a way that allows for masculine rescue. As Dorsey Armstrong explains, "the Pentecostal Oath constructs male and female in terms of a binary which opposes active, aggressive masculinity to passive, helpless femininity" (45). Knights gain honor by saving damsels in distress. Yet neither Launcelot nor her brothers nor her father nor anyone else can save her once she asserts her coming demise. Molly Martin has pointed out that Perceval's sister, another lady in a boat, chooses to die in such a way that her brother cannot rescue her, and Elaine’s death is similarly outside of the chivalric system.

Instead, her death forms a new narrative all her own. Walsh notes that "Malory does not let Elaine die offstage, as she does in both the sources" (144). And it is in fact her death (and the related fact that we see her voyage from her perspective and thus vicariously journey with her to Camelot rather than just seeing her arrive) in Malory's version that creates such a strong sense of her character. As Martin points out, "Malory carefully reworks the material surrounding her death to show a particularly active Fayre maydyn creating an image of her own dead body" (154). Knowing that she'll die, she first requests to dictate a letter, and then describes the way in which her father and brother should arrange her body.  All of these requests are meant to prepare a narrative for the court, and all are meant to give her authorial control. The fact that she mentions the letter first means that all arrangements are in terms of that letter. Gawain may send a deathbed missive to Launcelot, but Elaine sends her deathbed. Her deathbed is in fact part of the missive. She requests, "'And whyle my body is hote lat thys letter be put in my ryght honde, and my honde bounde faste to the letter untyll that I be colde" (640). The letter thus provides the link between living and dead maiden. The willful clasp of warm hand will be  followed by the inert touch of cold fingers, but the letter will witness the moment of transition and remain. The further details she requests, to be put on a bed with rich clothes, to be taken to the Thames, and to have her barge covered in black samite, all function as extensions of this request for a written message (640). All these details are meant to be read and understood by the court in conjunction with the letter and to properly convey her version of herself and her story. She'll make a spectacular entrance, but also an epistolary one.

There are a number of ways that she maintains control over her letter. She asks that a mute oarsman row her barge, assuring that someone will be present to ensure the barge goes where she wants but that no one can provide an alternate version of her story. She travels by river, which, unlike an ocean voyage, has a specific direction. If we see the linear movement of the river as historical time, then Elaine's movement in history is brief and tragic. Martin B. Shichtman points out that Elaine “has no real story beyond that which can be summed up in two sentences. Her entrance into the realm of historical time is brief, incomplete, and fatal” (261). And this is certainly true. Yet it's also true that historical time here is not wholly separate from a-historical romance time. Joseph D. Parry discusses the way in which Malory locates Elaine's story in both Guildford, specifically locatable to a 15th century reader, and also Astolat, "a place firmly inscribed in the Arthurian landscape of surprise adventures" (159). He notes that the text "locates the river down which the Fair Maid's funerary procession travels, in two settings. One can locate the river – the Thames . . . in Malory's fifteenth-century world. But Elaine's final river trip is also a journey elevated to mythical status." Her journey thus complicates both spatiality and temporality. Meg Rowland calls Malory's manner of pairing mythical and 15th century locations "pluralistic geography," in conjunction with the coexistence of chronicle and romance time. Elaine's journey functions in such geographically and temporally complex ways. The movement of a river is narrative in itself, and combines the static quality of Elaine's dead body with the narrative quality of her story. Word and image, text and body, fuse as she makes her first and last trip to Camelot. 

As she floats to Camelot, everyone's talking about her, and she is ultimately able to squash all the rumors and give the last word on the subject. At fist, Arthur only notices the spectacle -- the corpse's great beauty and riches -- without understanding its full import. He does observe that "she lay as she had smyled" (640). Sue Ellen Holbrook points out that "the smile . . . is the sign of a soul at rest," and I think this sign is legible to the knights of the court (177). It is the queen who notices the letter and points it out to Arthur and the knights, thus recognizing the body's full narrative potential. The letter then gets a public audience, her version of the story read directly to all. Alan Lupack explains that "her arrival is . . . an elaborately staged performance. … The public display is important because it provides the setting for Elaine's letter" (260). I would even argue that the performance, the spectacle of it all, is part of the letter. Her letter is inextricable from her cold hand, from her beautiful face, from her smile, from her lovely garments, from the strange mode by which she enters the court.

The letter is Malory's third iteration of the Fair Maiden's tale; as a deathbed epistle, Elaine's version of events holds some authority. Malory expands upon this authority by giving us the letter in its entirety:
'Moste noble knyght, my lorde sir Launcelot, now hath dethe made us two at debate for youre love. And I was youre lover, that men called the Fayre Maydyn of Astolate. Therefore unto all ladyes I make my mone, yet for my soule ye pray and bury me at the leste, and offir ye my masse-peny: thys ys my laste requeste. And a clene maydyn I dyed, I take God to wytnesse. And pray for my soule, sir Launcelot, as thou arte pereless.' (641) 
As many critics have noted, this version of her letter differs from those that place blame on Launcelot. Malory's version focuses not on vengeance, but rather on asserting Elaine’s own character and providing her personal narrative. As Georgiana Donavin explains, "Where the letter's narratio, or news, would ordinarily be, there is, instead, her assertion of identity . . . Elaine's subject position is the story in her epistle" (7). She wants a proper burial, she wants a mass-penny, and she wants everyone to know that she loved Launcelot and died a clean maiden. That she wants a mass-penny and prayers for her soul indicates a connection between the body in the barge and the soul of the maiden, even as her earlier deathbed assertion to a priest that she was a worldly woman coincided with preparation for her departure from the world. In short, the journey itself is a boundary collapse between sacred and secular road trips. Thus Elaine can not only assure that her story is understood but she can tell that story in such a way that it will have real efficacy for her, even after her death.

And Elaine's letter certainly rouses the crowd. By the time they call in Launcelot, "the kynge, the quene and all the knyghtes wepte for pité of the dolefull complayntes" (641). Public feeling is on the maiden's side before Launcelot even enters the scene. Even the queen pities Elaine and blames Launcelot. It's telling that even an audience as prejudiced against Elaine as the queen can see the pity in her narrative. It also seems that the queen can’t see outside of the chivalric system, assuming that Launcelot could have saved Elaine somehow, whereas Elaine herself resisted this model. Camelot is the geographical heart of the round table narrative, and the people of the court, epitomized by the queen, live by the chivalric system that Elayne has rejected. When she enters the court, her own identity and story collide with a realm she never knew in life, and her words become part of the official narrative.

Thus, the maiden's tale does not end with her death, but instead with her version of her story. The tale ends with a retelling of itself from her perspective only made possible by her journey in death. This cyclical method of telling a story with such a clearly linear direction (i.e. the river) furthers the complicated way in which Elaine's body and letter function as image-text. Simultaneous cyclical and linear movements render the maiden's story both ever-happening and ever-new, while the contemporary geographical details place it in the past as well. The past tense and the literary present collide and verbs fail to express the temporal possibilities of Malory's version of the tale. Elaine is both a static image and a moving narrative. Just as she has the ability to travel when she can no longer move and to communicate when she can no longer speak, her story is characterized by contradiction.We gain proper nouns to allow Elaine a subject position, but our verb tenses explode between already-happened and always-happening. Disrupting time and space in this way allows her to be fixed and moving, visual and narrative, all at once. Her funeral literally fixes the story she has told in stone and gives both her body and her tale a permanent place in the land to which she sailed.