Teaching the Pre-Modern Post-Election

Great collection of reflections put together by Kisha Tracy. I have a small contribution to it.

MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

After November 8th, finishing the semester for teachers of any age group of students became an arduous task. The same was true for me. From the day after, when I had to ask myself how I could face my students and what I could say to them, to the days following, when the usual routine was accompanied by the world seemingly making less and less sense, I have found myself asking if what I do truly has any impact. Teaching the pre-modern often brings out the naysayers who don’t see any significance in learning what isn’t “modern,” but, in a time when current events are in such chaos, those suspicions are even more pronounced, even as the ramifications of a lack of knowledge about the past are on display almost daily. In an attempt for some catharsis, I asked a group of medievalists from various institutions around the country…

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How Do You See Me?

I continue to be perplexed by this ad. In it, a woman with Down Syndrome begins narrating “This is how I see myself.” This narration overlays images of Olivia Wilde living her life, the full range of human experiences and emotions. It should be noted that Wilde is an attractive actress and has a striking appearance on screen. The narrator goes on to describe the events unfolding, the possibilities for her life. She says, “I am an ordinary person.” Inspirational music swells. At the end of the ad, the camera pivots in a 180 away from Wilde to show the narrator. She then asks us, “How do you see me?” This has spawned the #HowDoYouSeeMe hashtag on Twitter. In describing this ad, I noted the general attractiveness of the actress performing in it, and I do so not to draw a contrast between her beauty and the beauty of the woman narrating; however, I cannot help but feel that there is contrast being drawn nonetheless. The woman speaking and narrating, giving voice to worlds of possibilities, is disabled while the actress on screen does not share in that particular disability. We, the audience, are being asked to confront our preconceptions. But what about the ad’s preconceptions? This young woman sees herself as a normal, ordinary person going through life.  And why shouldn’t she? The ad’s view of “normal” at first does not seem to include disability. The disabled body is effectively erased in the ad except in the form of a spectral voice and the final image. This is a visual version of a statement I’ve heard again and again – “You’ve done so much despite your disability.”

I do understand it. Really, I do. I get a steady stream of patronizing and sometimes demeaning attitudes from people who only seem to see my wheelchair. And yet, I feel it is impossible to read this video as having any other message than “Inside every disabled person is a ‘normal’ attractive person just waiting to be recognized.” I’m uncomfortable with the insinuation of normativity that hangs over the ad. I do not think it is intentional, and I think this ad is, in fact, well-intentioned, but I agree with David Perry that it is an absolute failure.

Most importantly, I do not think it is possible to see past one’s disability, to extract those impairments and differences and prostheses from a person’s identity or sense of self. Nor do I think it is possible to experience life separate from one’s disability and difference.  For someone to say they see me and not the wheelchair is disingenuous at best, and a fantasy at worst. There is no there there. I can only speak for myself, and I cannot speak on behalf of of the Down syndrome community. But I do think there is a harmful message inextricably caught up in this ad, no matter how well-intentioned it is.

So, please no videos where I am narrating over Bradley Cooper doing mundane yet cool stuff. (Okay, if he wants to do a video for me to narrate I’m happy to do so as long as it’s not inspiration porn.)

Call for Papers, Kalamazoo 2016: “Erratic Letters” & “Kinky Grammar”

The Grammar Rabble

The Grammar Rabble will sponsor two roundtable session at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, at the University of Western Michigan, May 12–15, 2016. We are seeking short paper proposals on the following topics:

Erratic Letters

In geology, an ‘erratic’ stone is one that does not match the stones surrounding it, one that seems to have wandered in from another place. This panel would consider the ‘erratic’ letter—the letter that has failed to be pinned down, failed to maintain a constant materiality, or failed to keep its materiality in a persistent location. This session will seize upon such erratic letters—perhaps the letter transposed or misread by the copyist, perhaps the letter from a foreign alphabet unexpectedly placed in a new context—as a Lucretian ‘swerve’, a moment when the text becomes alive to new interpretive possibilities.

Kinky Grammar

Medieval European grammar was commonly associated with the straight line, as in…

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CFP for volume on monstrosity and disability

Embodied Difference: Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World, edited by Richard H. Godden and Asa Simon Mittman
Call for Papers (Initial deadline, September 1)

Volume Description

Medieval and Early Modern art and literatures are replete with images of non­normative bodies. Saints lives valorize physical challenges, fabliaux render them metaphorical, medical texts pathologize them, and marginal images make them subjects of amusement. Divergent bodies are viewed as gifts from God, markers of sin, or manifestations of medical imbalances. In many cases throughout Western history, a figure marked by what Rosemarie Garland­Thomson has termed “the extraordinary body” is labeled a “monster.”

In this collection, we wish to take on the challenge of examining the intersection of the discourses of “disability” and “monstrosity.” Bringing these two themes together is a timely and necessary intervention in the current scholarly fields of Disability Studies and Monster Studies, especially in light of the pernicious history of defining people with distinctly non­normative bodies or non­normative cognition as monsters. This collection will explore the origins of this conflation, examine the problems and possibilities inherent in it, and cast both disability and monstrosity in the light of emergent, empowering discourse of posthumanism.

Irina Metzler has observed that in the Middle Ages there was no conception of the disabled as it would accord with modern notions of embodied difference. In looking for figures of the disabled and the deformed, scholars in medieval Disability Studies have often fallen back on monstrosity as an overlapping or even equivalent category. We are looking for essays that address the imbrications of monstrosity and disability in provocative and searching ways. We especially encourage essays that do not simply collapse these two categories, but rather look to interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. What is the effect of reading monsters as disabled and the disabled as monstrous? How does the coupling of these two Othered groups obscure important features? How does reading them together illuminate the social and cultural processes by which difference is constructed? How do the discourses of monstrosity and disability intersect with recent thinking on the posthuman? We invite essays from all disciplines and national traditions, and we welcome interdisciplinary, transtemporal and transcultural thinking, including medievalism.

We plan to include ten to twelve essays, framed by an introduction written by the editors and pair of brief codas written by prominent figures in Disability and Monster Studies. We invite essays based in the disciplines and discourses of medicine, literature, religion, art history, law, ethics, and on, that consider themes including visibility and invisibility, civilization and wildness, normativity and abnormality, vulnerability, processes, transformations, encounters, and enactments. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, “monstrous births”; “monstrous peoples”; “monstrous gender”; religious, social, and political otherness; physical, mental and cognitive difference; care and treatment of the disabled; disability, sin, and salvation; and positive, even celebratory depictions of disability.

Ohio State University Press has expressed interest in this volume.

Please send a 250 word abstract to Richard Godden (rick.godden@gmail.com) or Asa Simon Mittman (asmittman@mail.csuchico.edu), and feel free to contact us with queries, questions, and suggestions.

Editor Biographies

Richard H. Godden is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Tulane University, and has published in postmedieval and New Medieval Literatures. He is also co­author with Jonathan Hsy of “Analytical Survey: Encountering Disability in the Middle Ages.” His current work focuses on the intersections between the political theology of the neighbor, temporality, and Disability Studies in medieval romance. He also works on the alliances between Digital Humanities and Disability Studies. He has presented numerous papers throughout the US on related subjects, and his research has been funded by the Newcomb College Institute, Tulane University, and Washington University. He is a founding member of the Grammar Rabble.

Asa Simon Mittman is Professor of Art History at California State University, Chico, and author of Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (2006; paperback 2008), co­author with Susan Kim of Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (2013, awarded a Millard Meiss Publication Grant from the College Art Association), and author and co­author of 22 articles and chapters on monstrosity and marginality in the Middle Ages, including most recently pieces on Satan in the Junius 11 manuscript (Gesta, with Kim) and “race” in the Middle Ages (postmedieval), in addition to several works in press and in progress. He edited the Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (with editorial assistance by with Peter Dendle, 2012; paperback 2013), and is co­director of Virtual Mappa, an interface to allow searching and linking among medieval maps and geographical texts, due to launch this fall. Mittman’s research has been supported by the College Art Association, the International Center of Medieval Art, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as grants from Arizona State University and Chico State. He edits book series with Boydell and Brill, and is the founding president of MEARCSTAPA and a founding member of the Material Collective.

Neighboring Wastelands in SGGK

I delivered this paper at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium in April 2016


Neighboring the Wilderness in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Richard H. Godden

During the New Chaucer Society meeting in Portland in 2012, I attended a panel discussion that endeavored to bring together two of the conference threads – Oceans and Neighbors. On one hand, these two could not seem further part: the former concerned with the oceanic, ecological flow, and the latter concerned with the bonds of antagonism and love that co-exist (if uncomfortably) between human actors. In the Q&A, I asked how it is that we could enter into a neighboring relation with the ocean. At the time, I was thinking more about environmentalism than ecology – I was thinking of good stewardship of the waters, and not interdependence. In the following remarks, however, I want to re-visit this question from a different angle. Rather than thinking about brighter tomorrows, I want to think darker ecologies. Moving from the ocean to the wilderness of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I want to explore Gawain’s travels as being something other than a journey into and through the otherworld. I want to consider what it means to neighbor the wilderness.

While there have been several ecological readings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, many have focused on the insistent greenness and otherworldliness (also associated with the color green) of so much of the poem.[1] But despite these green encounters, Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral reveal a terrain nearly devoid of vegetation or color (outside of the stark colors of winter), one that is alien and inhospitable. The landscape is so bleak that the narrator even tells us that “For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors” (726). [2] (HANDOUT 1) The inclement landscape, with its barren rocks, that he temporarily inhabits on his quest poses a greater danger than the beasts, monsters, and wild men he encounters. In this paper, I wish to do that which Gawain is loathe to do: linger among the “naked rokkez” (730) of the wilderness.[3] I do so to pursue not a green reading, but rather a “dark ecology” — as Timothy Morton describes — in order to ask what it means to neighbor resistant, uninviting landscapes. By extending Morton’s insights into the ethics of neighboring in relationship to ecology, I argue that neighboring nature in the poem reveals an ecological other that resists possession. The barrenness of the “naked rokkez” stands in stark contrast to fantasies of dominion. In doing so, these spaces dissolve the comforting and familiar invitation of land that so many medieval texts favor, instead providing alien, uncanny spaces that cannot be so easily inhabited. To approach the poem ecologically, I am dividing this paper into two sections: time and space, and I hope the two will come together.

  1. Time

As Morton Bloomfield once remarked, the poem is “soaked in time in all its aspects.”[4] We begin with the Brut-tradition, with the rise and fall of empires. In a quick sketch, almost like a “Previously On” on a tv show, we are told of the Fall of Troy, brought about by treachery, and we are told of the diaspora of Trojans who found the various cities of Europe, including Britain. We are brought up to the current moment in the text with the introduction of Arthur, but after such an opening, we must approach the ensuing narrative with some trepidation. We all know the story – Arthur falls, must fall, and so his kingdom will fall and another will rise.

Although this is a palpably familiar history, the Gawain-poet encapsulates this history within more dizzying experiments with time in the poem.[5] By this I mean the rapid escalation of temporal sequence, what Morton might refer to as time-lapse, which he describes as follows: “By speeding up the world, time-lapse photography makes things that seem natural reveal something monstrous or artificial, an uncanny, morphing flow.”[6] (HANDOUT 2) The sweep of history is, here, reduced to a list, a few feet of poetry. Such accomplishment passes by so quickly that I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar where the events of greatest magnitude for human history are shown to be contained within a single day of the year. Similarly, how many metrical feet would Arthur’s reign take up in a universal history?

The short historical precis that opens the poem marks one such instance of time-lapse, but the changing of the seasons in fitt II provides a touchstone for the temporal vertigo that I observe in the poem. This is a beautiful scene, cinematic and awesome as winter gives way to spring gives way to summer, and so on. In describing this scene as beautiful it does not yet seem particularly uncanny, but the lines that introduce the changing of seasons are (to me at least) quietly unnerving: “A ȝere ȝernes ful ȝerne, and ȝeldez neuer lyke, / êe forme to îe fynishment foldez ful selden” (468-69).  The year runs quickly, and the beginning and end rarely match. What should be a comforting meditation on the cyclical and enduring change of seasons is launched by an observation about alterity in time, the unforeseeable future.[7] Further, the changing of the seasons begins and ends in winter – a time not for renewal but for strange encounters, and for nervous meditations upon upcoming voyages into unknown lands. The changing of the seasons is also littered with anthropomorphic touches, imprinting human action – “Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne” (525) – upon the actions of the natural world. And yet, despite the attribution of recognizable human actions to the weather, the inexorable grind of time remains impersonal, detached from human yearnings and emotion. The seasons change and yet Gawain will soon have no choice but to begin his “anious uyage” (534). It would, perhaps, be better to say that these anthropomorphic details signal the inhuman, not the human, an unsettling recognition that alienates even as it invites.

If the changing of the seasons is still mostly beautiful, we might find a darker ecology in the next moment of time-lapse – Gawain’s travels through the wilderness of Wirral, or as the poet puts it, “contrayez straunge.” If this were an action movie, we would see Gawain scrambling over cliffs, traversing through black rocks, and notably, fighting an absurd, frankly parodic number of foes. We are told that

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,

Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,

Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,

And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle. (720-723) (HANDOUT 3)

So, for those keeping track, he fights worms (or likely, dragons), wolves, wodwos (or wildmen), bulls, bears, boars, and etaynez (giants). Any one encounter with just one of these creatures could serve as the climax of a scene if not an entire poem. The speedup of time-lapse renders this series of climactic moments as uncanny, piling one upon another until it almost cannot be taken seriously or as real. These monsters and other non-human creatures are what Morton might call strange strangers, those figures whose strangeness only increases the more intimate with them we become.

In tracing the the uncanniness of Gawain’s encounters, I am looking to find the neighborly in the ecological others of the poem. At first, this list of foes would seem unlikely candidates for the neighbor. George Edmonson, in his excellent book The Neighboring Text, offers the following gloss on the position of the neighbor:

Located somewhere between familiarity and anonymity, between the family unit and the polis, the neighbor stands as that intimate other whose recognition we crave, and with whom we can partially identify, but who also displays a strange, potentially hostile desire—a death drive—that uncannily threatens the dream of community. There is an amorphous quality to the neighbor, a kind of liminality, that fundamentally confuses our approach to the neighbor both in theory and in practice. The neighbor is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening; he rattles us even as he ratifies us.[8] (HANDOUT 4)


There seems to be little familiar in the dragons and other creatures that Gawain battles, except that they are reassuring in their ability to be defeated, to be conquered. Gillian Rudd, for instance, observes that “he needs the adventure in an Other world to secure his own identity as a questing knight of Arthur’s court.”[9] I would go further and say that, despite his increasing discomfort during the scene, Gawain, in fact, seems most like himself during these stanzas than perhaps anywhere else in the poem. This is the only time that we see him be truly successful. For the most part, he proves himself to be a valiant warrior here, unlike his failures at Hautdesert and the Green Chapel. And yet, the numbers of these creatures continue to multiply. The battles only seem to come to an end because he travels through the land. Had he stayed, presumably he would have continued battling dragons and giants and wolves.

Morton further describes the eventfulness of encountering these figures, “whose strangeness is irreducible: arrivants, whose arrival cannot be predicted or accounted for.”[10] (HANDOUT 5) Relating the strange stranger both to Derrida’s arrivant and to Zizek’s invocation of the neighbor[11] (which Edmondson’s analysis is also reliant upon), Morton argues that, “If anything, life is catastrophic, monstrous, nonholistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative.”[12] We could compare such figures to the strangeness of the Green Knight, who begins as strangely strange but seems to become familiar by the end.[13] But, if we imagine the Green Knight as occupying just a half-line in that list of encounters, he becomes strange once again. Familiarity, perhaps, is temporary and fleeting.

  1. Space

While on his hunt for the Green Chapel, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe how injurious and inclement winter is for our knight:

For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,

When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,

And fres er hit falle myȝt to þe fale erþe;

Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes

Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,

Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,

And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.

Þus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde. (726-733)

Threatened from above by sharp icicles, from below by barren rocks, and from all around by the unforgiving cold, Gawain makes his journey in “peryl and payne and plytes ful harde,” a condition that pervades the entire poem. Gawain spends more than enough nights in this state. In fact, the narrator tells us that the parade of creatures Gawain faces were far preferable to the inclement desolation of the land and environment that Gawain is so uncomfortably inhabiting when he meets these foes. In the first part, I looked at time-lapse and the uncanny effects of swift time. Here, I want to think of the still-image (or at least a recurring image), this one vision of Gawain among the naked rocks.

The use of “naked” to describe the “rokkez” is an intriguing choice. According to the Middle English Dictionary, “naked” can mean “(a) Of ground: without fresh vegetation, barren; also, not covered (as with a carpet or blanket); of autumn: devoid of green vegetation, sere; of trees: not covered with leaves, leafless; ~ of leves, stripped of leaves” or “(b) not covered with tissue or flesh, bare.” Or, in a definition that initially seems inappropriate to this context, “naked” can mean “(e) of the heart: lacking human affection, unfeeling.” (HANDOUT 6) I suggest that the “naked” in “naked rokkez” constellates these meanings, drawing them together into a dense thicket of possible interpretations.

At its most basic level, we understand that the rocks are stripped bare, not covered by vegetation or other foliage. They are barren. But in their bareness they also evoke the fleshy vulnerability of Gawain, who, even enclosed in armor, seems as if naked before the weather and the world he finds himself in. I would also argue that the rocks here are indeed unfeeling, lacking human affection, much like the changing seasons. To put it more directly, these rocks do not reinforce the narratives we wish to tell about the land through which we travel. This can be best seen through a comparison. For example, compare the Wilderness of the Wirral to the description of Britain in Geoffrey of Monmouth:

At this time the island of Britain was called Albion.  It was uninhabited except for a few giants.  It was, however, most attractive, because of the delightful situation of its various regions, its forests and the great number of its rivers, which teemed with fish; and it filled Brutus and his comrades with a great desire to live there.  When they had explored the different districts, they drove the giants whom they had discovered into the caves in the mountains.  With the approval of their leader they divided the land among themselves.  They began to cultivate the fields and to build houses, so that in a short time you would have thought that the land had always been inhabited.[14] (HANDOUT 7)


Brutus encounters a lush, delightful land just waiting to be cultivated. The land Gawain finds instead is one despoiled, barren, unfit for inhabitation. You might think the land in Sir Gawain had never been, and more importantly, never would be inhabited. This comparison between the lush land Brutus encounters and Gawain’s strange yet desolate country might suggest a reading where the land has been progressively despoiled through time. Instead, I would suggest that this is not a tale of post-despoliation, but rather one that resists entirely the possibility that this land can ever be possessed.

To understand this further, I want to try to think about this desolation through the ethics of the neighbor. Morton observes that “The ecological thought thinks the strange stranger as the other mind, the other person, the neighbor, to use the Judeo-Christian term (“Love thy neighbor as thyself”).” In discussing the strange stranger as neighbor, Morton looks to the difficult strangers of Wordsworth’s poetry, but also, like Žižek, to the Muselmann, the “living dead” of the concentration camps whose zero level of being serves as an exemplary figure of the neighbor, this uncanny figure who eschews the beautiful, who is ultimately not inviting. However, in “Monsters and Other Neighbors,” Žižek also discusses the figure of Odradek in Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man.”[15] Odradek is a curious creature which looks like a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread”, and is made up of broken-off bits of thread, but yet still retains some human-like qualities, such as the ability to stand upright and to speak. Significantly, when questioned about where it lives, Odradek would reply “No fixed abode.” Instead, it occupies liminal spaces such as stairwells and lobbies. In Odradek, Žižek sees not just the neighbor, but jouissance embodied: “jouissance is that which we cannot ever attain and that which we cannot ever get rid of.”[16] There is a comforting fantasy that Žižek gives us, that the encounter with the neighbor happens in liminal spaces or in spaces marked off as non-human. But, as Morton would remind us: “The ecological thought permits no distance. Thinking interdependence involves dissolving the barrier between ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’ […] thinking interdependence involves thinking difference. This means confronting the fact that all beings are related to each other negatively and differentially, in an open system without center or edge.”[17] (HANDOUT 8) Strange strangers are everywhere, including at Bertilak’s court, but also, perhaps, in the naked rocks themselves. When thinking the neighbor, Žižek and others tend to look for the inhuman in the human. But, I wonder about looking to the space, the land itself as the inhuman other that we can neither attain nor get rid of. The final line of Kafka’s story is “but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” Instead of the inhuman Odradek, I would like to think of this as the land that survives us, whose survival is almost painful. The landscape Gawain traverses is one not possessed or cultivated. Unlike the comforting fantasy of dominion we get in Geoffrey of Monmouth, the characters in Sir Gawain have an uncanny relationship to the land itself. The time-lapse speed up of events in the beginning of the poem does not tell the story of land being variously conquered and possessed, but rather of land and territory unpossessed.

Gawain’s dwelling among the “naked rokkez” lays bare the difference to be found in stone. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in his Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, observes that “Something potentially propulsive unfolds within both frames at the moment of contact between mortal flesh and lithic substantiality: the advent of a disorienting realization, no matter how dimly perceived, that stone’s time is not ours, that the world is not for us, even as material continuity becomes palpable.”[18] (HANDOUT 9) Cohen would remind us that “rocks and people inhabit temporalities and magnitudes profoundly different.” To read the rocks as an ecological neighbor is to restore this multitude of temporalities to the poem. The land has its own history, and we feel vertiginous as we realize that we are not at home in it, that we are only dwelling, for a while.

III. Naked Neighbors

In closing this paper, I remain intrigued by the poet’s use of “naked” to describe the rocks. The poet uses “naked” only a handful of times, and only once is it used to describe something inhuman like rocks. For the other times, the adjective “naked” is mostly used to describe either the bare throat of Gawain or the same body part of Lady Bertilak, such as her “naked lyppez.” Closer to the description of “naked rocks,” the poet also uses “naked” to detail how punishingly cold the winter is when Gawain seeks the Green Chapel in fitt IV – “Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe, / Wyth nyȝe innoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene; / Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde” (2001-2003). (HANDOUT 10) The “naked,” that is, the vulnerable or poorly outfitted, will be harmed by the harsh winter cold. This one word, “naked,” brings together the many catastrophic elements of the poem. Gawain’s bare neck is emphasized, but so is the alluring quality of Lady Bertilak’s body. It consistently emphasizes vulnerability and seduction. In this one word, we can find the essence of the Arthurian story, at least of its ending. When Gawain comes back to Arthur’s court bearing the green lace as a sign of his untruth, Arthur encourages the court to take it up as a public symbol of the court, in honor of the young knight who has returned to them. Time speeds up again as this act forces us to consider how the ending of the Arthurian age is due to divided loyalties, betrayals, seduction, exactly the travails that Gawain experiences in the poem. In a poem framed by the translatio imperii of Trojan refugees conquering and possessing Europe, the uncanny spaces Gawain reluctantly lingers in tells a different story, of land and territory unpossessed. Ultimately, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dissolves the comforting and familiar invitation of land or sweep of history in favor of alien, inhuman vantage points. To neighbor the wilderness is to realize we are at home everywhere and nowhere.

[1] See, for example, Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2007). Also see Carolyn Dinshaw, “Ecology,” in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 347–62; Alfred K. Siewers, “Ecopoetics and the Origins of English Literature,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), pp. 105–20.

[2] The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, eds. Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).

[3] Rudd takes a similar approach, focusing on the Wilderness of Wirral, though we come to different conclusions regarding the relationship between Gawain and these landscapes.

[4] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Appraisal,’ PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76.1 (1961): 7-19, p. 19. For further considerations of time in the poem, see John K. Crane, ‘The Four Levels of Time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Annuale Mediaevale 10 (1969): 65-80; Jane Tolimieri, ‘Medieval Concepts of Time and Their Influence on Structure and Meaning in the Works of the Gawain-Poet,’ Unpublished Dissertation, 1989; Richard H. Godden, “Gawain and the Nick of Time: Fame, History, and the Untimely in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 26, no. 4 (2016), forthcoming.

[5] For instance, see Ian Bishop, ‘Time and Tempo in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ Neophilologus 69.4 (1985): 611-619.

[6] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 43.

[7] S. L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman, “The Passing of the Seasons and the Apocalyptic in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” South Central Review 3, no. 1 (1986): 5–22. Clark and Wasserman argue that the ‘fourteenth-century poet not only knows that Camelot has fallen but also fears that his own society is likewise unraveling, and in his poem of Arthurian society’s failure–a failure in a line of failures stretching from Troy–he attempts to warn of impending doom facing New Troy, that is, London. Thus, the poem reaches outward from its own time to the present. In the same way, the present is reflected in the past of the poem, in that the apocalyptic worldview of the poet is the first cause of his portrayal of the crumbling world of the Arthurian court. In other words, the threatened collapse of the poet’s own society serves to explain the fall of Camelot’ (8).

[8] George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), p. 10.

[9] Gillian Rudd, “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Arthuriana 23, no. 1 (2013): 52–65, 60.


[10] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 276.

[11] Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[12] Morton, “Queer Ecology,” p. 275.

[13] I’m indebted to Carolyn Dinsahw’s reading of the foliate heads and the Green Knight in “Ecology.”

[14] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1st edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 72.

[15] Žižek, pp. 159-160.

[16] Žižek, p. 164. He further describes Odradek “as an object that is transgenerational (exempted from the cycle of generations), immortal, outside finitude (because outside sexual difference), outside time, displaying no goal-oriented activity, no purpose, no utility, is jouissance embodied.”

[17] Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 39.

[18] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Divergent Bodies and the Making of the Middle Ages CFP

Ok people, we know you want to submit a paper to our NCS 2016 panel!

50. Divergent Bodies and the Making of the Middle Ages
Organizers: Rick Godden (rick.godden@gmail.com) and Dorothy Kim (dokim@vassar.edu)
Paper panel
This session explores the presence of divergent bodies in its most expansive definitions–including both physical and cognitive impairment, as well as different sexualities, and racial identities – and how they matter for the construction of the Middle Ages. Presenters would attend to how divergent bodies–their presence or their erasure – are a contested site for forming national and local identities and bodies of knowledge. For example, how does the centrality of the imagined and real divergent bodies in Mandeville’s Travels create local identities as well as a larger international one? This session will open up a larger conversation about how medieval studies have used queer, disabled, multiconfessional, racial, and other bodies to create medieval literary culture. We would also welcome papers that examine the vibrant exchange between past and present, between the divergent bodies of academic medievalists and the subjects they study.

Submit here: http://newchaucersociety.org/2016-call

New Year’s End (Again)

I posted this last year, and I’m convinced that time really is just some endless knot, after all, because I’m thinking the same thoughts, grasping at the same things. There are some differences, I suppose. Where last year I was thinking about Karl’s post on “The Prioress’s Tale,” I’m thinking lately (again) about the body of the pagan judge in St. Erkenwald, and about the vital material of his tomb. I’m also thinking about vulnerability in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and about the prostheses that proliferate in that text, objects that cover, complete, discover, and pierce. I’m thinking about suicides in the student body where I teach, but I’m also thinking about how amazing my students are. Beginnings and endings, always. So much pain and so much joy–it is difficult to separate them out.

I should do a retrospective, but I won’t just yet. Rather, I hope (in the next few days) to post a looking forward. For now, here is the post again, same as last year. Repeat.


And so we come to the end, again. Always again, or at least always until the end. Endings have been inescapably on my mind these last few days, especially provoked by Karl’s excellent post at ITM. And, as I’m sure everyone is aware, we are at year’s end, with all the existential (and financial and personal and…) accounting that that entails. But, endings are opportunity for beginnings, and so there is some hope for optimism. Or is there? What does it mean to make a new beginning? Does the beginning of a new year mean anything outside of our collective agreement to mark this as the time in which we begin a new sequence of months?

It’s also about time for all of us to begin making new resolutions as we look forward to the promise of a new year. In addition to Karl’s ruminations on plucking the grain from the little clergeon in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” (the dead body of the boy is miraculously singing, and he will only be quiet and restful once the grain is pulled from his tongue), I am mindful of another medieval text: Piers Plowman. More specifically, I’m thinking of D. Vance Smith’s reading of the poem in his Book of the Incipit. Smith gives us a way to grapple with the repeated new beginnings of Langland’s poem — the poem can’t seem to quite fashion an end, but it continuously fashions new beginnings. Smith observes

the crucial importance of beginnings to the formal structure, theology, and political phantasmatics of the poem suggests the powerful presence of what might be called, rather, an inceptive animus, the epiphenomenon of beginning—the anxiety of beginning that is manifest indirectly as indirection itself, as the reluctance to make closure, or as the irrepressible remnant of what comes before the beginning, which is made to end. (19)

During New Year’s, we’re often possessed of such “an inceptive animus.” Already I’m seeing New Year’s Resolutions, both sincere and glib, all over my various social media feeds. The New Year’s Resolution (NYR) is a curious speech act: through it we attempt to call forth a better tomorrow by attempting to dissolve the past. Common and recurring resolutions for myself include the desire to “get more work done” or “be better organized” or “write more,” etc. In each case, the hope for better future behaviors is predicated upon a negative evaluation of past behavior.

Smith again: “beginnings are a privation of the past in a larger sense: as the annulment of history, of what must become the outside, the exterior, of an event to make the event unique—which is to say, intelligible, initiating, and historical” (21). To make sense of this moment as new, to decide to make it different, we often attempt to annul the moments that gave birth to it.

Unlike Langland’s insistent re-beginning of the poem, we don’t necessarily have the same “reluctance to make closure.” Instead, the NYR expresses a deep desire for closure, but only as a way to redress and make right past experience. “Sure, I screwed up last year, but this year, this year, I’ll fix it all and be better.”

Inevitably, though, we make the NYR only to break it, often sooner rather than later. The past we seek to annul is indeed an “irrepressible remnant,” always ready to haunt us. We can’t fully annul the past, and any gesture to do so only confirms it.

But, I want to be clear here: I’m not saying that the lazy are always lazy, or the overindulgent always so. Rather, I just think it would be good to remember that while 2014 is a new year, with all the promise that suggests, mostly it’s just the next year, another item in a series whose ultimate length we can’t know.

So, don’t treat your New Year’s as some new, final beginning. Remember that it’s just one of many. Instead of conjuring away our past selves with futile speech acts, let’s just go on, incrementally, with lots of small new beginnings.

Happy New Year’s. So it goes. Etc.

Ferguson, Mr. Hyde, and the non-human

After reading Darren Wilson’s testimony, I, like many others, was struck by the dehumanizing language that Wilson used throughout. I also noticed some similarities to the opening scene of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I teach most every semester. After a twitter conversation concerning these parallels, I sent some further thoughts along to David Perry, who then wrote a piece for The Conversation at the Chronicle. Also, see Karl Steel’s excellent writeup of how he addressed Ferguson in his class on medieval race.

In his #FergusonSyllabus piece, Perry writes:

I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.

In our twitter conversation, I was comparing these descriptions to the following scene:

All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut. I gave a view-halloa, took to my heels, collared my gentleman, and brought him back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child. He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent, put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. But the doctor’s case was what struck me. He was the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best.

(What follows here is a slightly revised version of the original email I sent to Perry.) Here, the novella opens with a paranoid fever dream about the dangerousness of Victorian London. Mr. Hyde, described as a “damned Juggernaut” who “trampled calmly” a small girl in the dead of night, is set upon by an angry mob demanding his blood. Even the doctor wishes to kill Mr. Hyde. Every time I teach this text, I spend nearly an entire class session on the oddity of this opening scene. Why are there so many people out this late at night? Why does the mob seem so violent and then become so civil once Hyde agrees to pay their blackmail demands? Why would the mob treat Hyde so viciously? Yes, he knocks over girl, and this is certainly not a civilized action, but the response is entirely disproportionate to the event. That the mob becomes relatively civil and decidedly non-bloodthirsty once Hyde acquiesces to their demands makes all this even more suspect.

The absolute evil of Mr. Hyde is attested to by Dr. Jekyll and other characters, but none of these are necessarily reliable narrators, especially the good Doctor. On one hand, I suggest to my students that this could be evidence of something called the “bounce,” essentially a con game to ensnare hapless citizens. But more than that, we trace the language describing Mr. Hyde throughout the novella as being “hellish, “Satan,” “ape-like,” and “troglyditic.” He is also described as hirsute and not handsome, compared to the genial and soft features of the upper crust. Many of these terms–descriptions of hairiness and animality–were used in contemporary discourses that express anxiety and fear of the working underclass.  Frustratingly, the language of fear and anxiety concerning class difference hasn’t changed that much, and reading Jekyll and Hyde in 2014, it is difficult not to see how this language reflects racial panic as well. When I last taught this text in September, it was not long after the initial protests in Ferguson, and my class and I did note parallels to how some of the police officers referred to the protestors as animals.

Several months later, I can note that the language that the narrators of the novella used to describe Mr. Hyde bears a striking similarity to the language that Darren Wilson uses to describe Michael Brown. Both traffic in the language of the non-human, that is, the hulk, the demon. The “intense aggressive face” that Wilson describes Brown as having sounds like the “inexpressible deformity” that characters describe of Hyde. Finally, Mr. Enfield, the witness to the event with the girl, says to Mr. Utterson,

“There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”

That Mr. Hyde is evil is too easy a reading of a novella that labors to show the fractured, complicated nature of all of us. The characters’ responses to his savage and Satanic bearing are perhaps less of a presentiment of his sci-fi origins and more an indictment on their own biased tendency to prejudge someone who looks different than they do.

CFP for “De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability” — Kalamazoo 2015

“De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability”
50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 14-17 2015.

Sponsored by MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application)

It has been famously argued that there was no conception in the Middle Ages of the disabled as it would accord with modern notions of embodied difference. In looking for figures of the disabled and the deformed, scholars in medieval disability studies have often looked to monstrosity as an overlapping, if not entirely identical category. We are looking for papers that address the intersection of monstrosity and disability in provocative and searching ways. We especially encourage papers that do not simply collapse these two categories but rather look to interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired. What is the effect of reading monsters as disabled and the disabled as monstrous? How does the coupling of these two Othered figures obscure important features? How does reading them together illuminate the social and cultural processes by which difference is constructed? We invite papers from all disciplines and national traditions.

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words together with a completed Participant Information Form (available here: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/) to session organizer Richard Godden (rick.godden@gmail.com) or Asa Simon Mittman (asmittman@mail.csuchico.edu) by September 15. Please include your name, title, and affiliation on the abstract itself.  All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, as per Congress regulations.

Call for Papers, Kalamazoo 2015: “Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond!”

Check it out people.

The Grammar Rabble

The Grammar Rabble is sponsoring a roundtable session at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies. This session is a follow-up to last year’s “#;()@?”:—*!…” roundtable (which had been sponsored by the BABEL Working Group). We are seeking proposals.

“Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond!”

Punctuation marks infiltrate and inform our everyday experiences, but they have their own histories as well. They structure, relate, balance, and invoke; they collide, confuse, limit, and terminate. This roundtable, sponsored by the Grammar Rabble, takes punctuation and other typographical marks as the starting point for eclectic and inventive readings/meditations on Medieval Studies. We invite short presentations on any character–modern or archaic, Western or non-Western—and we are particularly interested in modes and marks of punctuation that are not immediately recognizable to modern eyes, including arrows, manicles, and neumes (and other musical notations). This session will continue to expand our sense of what punctuation…

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