Transforming Language

As I send bits and pieces of my burgeoning dissertation out into the world, it is becoming clear to me that the central topic of my thesis – the way writers use language to mediate fluid or non-binary gender – is likely to be a source of concern for readers of my own writing. This is as it should be, since I aim to argue that searching for the right words to express the intricacies, evolutions, and surprises of gender is fundamental to the process of understanding and enabling it. This being said, I am also aware that words have just as much power to shut down the possibilities of gender and have a destructive effect on those whose experience of gender exceeds the normative categories of “male” and “female.” Ordinarily, I do my best to defer to writers and theorists whose lived experience informs their discussion of gendered language, such as Susan Stryker and Jack Halberstam. In order to build upon their work and consider the ways in which people tried to answer these same questions in a different cultural and historical moment, however, it is necessary to adapt some of their terminology for use in a different semantic environment. This puts me at risk of anachronism or reductivism, and my readers will highly sensitive to the potential pitfalls of this fraught topic.

Though some of the most contentious words in the literature I discuss will be the monosyllables “he” and “she,” other words that will require careful attention in my prose will be the more recently coined and etymologically complex terms of “transgender,” “transvestite,” and “cross-dresser.” Each of these terms can be plausibly included under the umbrella term “trans*,” but more specificity is sometimes necessary. These terms also come up in the work of other scholars, and it is crucial for me to understand the stakes of choosing one term over another when engaging with other criticism.

The first decision I have to make relates to the distinction between “cross-dresser” and “transvestite” when it comes to figures who wear clothing that conflicts with the gender norms of their communities. Though “transvestite” is simply a Latinate version of “cross-dresser,” long usage has forged a semantic difference between the two terms. Each term has been used in a wide range of contexts and can hold a variety of meanings, but in the cultural imagination the word “transvestite” tends to conjure an image of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and “cross-dresser” invokes a suffragette in bloomers. Both of these images offer rich and wonderful possibilities for the subversion of normative gender identities, but neither are quite right as comparisons to a range of medieval English texts that narrate the exploits of women (and a man) who alter their gender performance in service of God.

Though one still sees “transvestite” and “cross-dresser” being used interchangeably to discuss saints who don gender atypical clothing, I have opted to use “cross-dressing” as a broader term. In his review of Paul Szarmach’s “Aelfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia,” Theodore Leinbaugh takes objection to Szarmach’s use of the word “transvestite” because “[his] dictionary defines transvestism primarily as the abnormal desire to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex” (56), whereas Eugenia’s cross-dressing seems purely pragmatic to him. I differ from Leinbach’s 1992 suggestion that Eugenia’s behaviour has nothing to do with gender variation, and would offer instead that we in 2015 should move away from thinking of cross-dressing as abnormal, but his objection is a prime example of the difficulties that a word like “transvestite” might raise before I have had a chance to discuss the nuances of each gender-fluid circumstance on a case-by-case basis.

I have taken a cue here from Susan Stryker in Transgender History. She defines “cross-dresser” as “a term intended as a non-judgmental replacement for “transvestite,” [as] it is usually considered to be neutrally descriptive of the practice of wearing gender-atypical clothing rather than associating that practice with an erotic impulse” (17). Though some have reclaimed the term “transvestite” as a way to indicate that there may in fact be an erotic impulse or broader implications for the gender identity of the cross-dresser, the term “cross-dresser” is useful for its neutrality prior to deeper examination or the possibility of self-identification. As Stryker points out, there can be a rich variety of personal, social, and cultural reasons for cross-dressing, and “cross-dresser” allows me to preserve some of this complexity.

Similarly, I will not use the term “transgender” to refer to any of the figures in my study. Though I have no doubt that the distant past was inhabited and enriched by people with diverse gender identities, I have no wish to designate medieval figures by using a modern term for a particular way that people may differ from the gender position they were assigned at birth. Furthermore, most of the figures in my study can be more accurately described as gender-fluid or non-binary – while the term “transgender” has come to refer primarily to “those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth” (Stryker 19), the cross-dressers in my study move through different gender identities in different circumstances.

I hope that my use of gendered terminology will evolve and become more refined as I work through some of these issues, and I look forward to benefiting from the perspective of anyone who I can persuade to read my work. For now, however, I hope I can express myself in a way that will be deferential to gender-variant people of the past and present and allow me to further explore the opportunities and challenges that language poses for gender identity.

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Against Hate: Why the study of medieval literature is vitally important

All of this controversy going on in Indiana with Mike Pence and the Religious Freedom bill has reminded me yet again that social justice is not something that we can (or should) separate from anything else we do as academics or human beings. Even when it seems like we are in the “bubble” of academia, not paying much attention to anything that has happened since 1500, we are reminded that some of us are not safe or welcome inside the bubble, and could be told to leave without fear of legal repercussions at any time. While the likelihood of me losing my brilliant colleagues in a mass discriminatory firing is probably pretty low, the fact that it is legal in the state that has otherwise been a great home to me makes me angry, as I know it does many others. It reminds me that the work we do is situated in a cultural environment that is exerting pressure and affecting our perceptions and those of our students all the time. As literary scholars, people who devote our lives to studying the expression of thought and feeling in the midst of cultural and historical forces, it is our duty to take an interest in our own historical moment, and show our students that there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the kind of attitudes that cause social injustices today.

In the midst of this anger, I have been asked to talk about why it is important to study Old English literature in my oral exams. Within the academy, it is easy enough to forget that the value of studying medieval literature is not self-evident. Students might find it esoteric and irrelevant to contemporary concerns, or feel that learning a dead language in order to read a bit of poetry is not worth the effort. Even worse are the people out there who do want to learn and study Old English, but for a terrifying reason. They celebrate Anglo-Saxon England as a time and a place where white heterosexual men were completely in charge, and any difference either did not exist or was not given any value within the heroic society. These people are out there on the internet, making comments on YouTube videos under Anglo-Saxon usernames.

Though we had mentioned this unpleasant element in passing during some of my Old English literature classes, I had not thought much about them other than feeling saddened by the fact that the literature that I spend my life studying was being made ugly by a group of people who wanted something that could use as rallying point for ignorance. Later, when I was reading the Early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale for the first time, I encountered it personally. The delightful Owl and the Nightingale contains elements of ‘flyting,’ a literary insult contest especially popular in medieval Scottish poetry in which the combatants use particularly creative and humorous language and imagery to hurl abuse at each other. The result is remarkably similar to a modern-day rap battle, and I decided to browse the internet for comparisons between the Owl and the Nightingale and rap battles, thinking that someone out there must have written a blog post about it, or made a funny video as part of a class project. What I found were the comments on this video, which implies that the predominantly African American genre is a poorer derivative of the work of earlier white artists. The comments section goes the extra mile by making this attitude explicit with a great deal of hate and racial slurs. I was crushed – I had been hoping to find some creative responses to the ways in which these two genres celebrate a similar impulse to engage in verbal combat in culturally specific ways, and what I found was sickening.

If the internet white supremacists simply kept to themselves and did not inflict their hate on the rest of us, it would be one thing. The nature of internet hate, however, means that it exists to spread itself around. Whether it is people like me who are just trying to study the Owl and the Nightingale or someone who wants to catch up on clips of the episode of Vikings that they missed, anyone who engages with Anglo-Saxon or other medieval literature on the internet is going to encounter it sooner or later. This is the environment our students are probably exposed to before they ever learn about medieval literature in an academic setting. They may already have an association between people who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England and hate, which saddening and disappointing if this turns them off, and so much worse if it encourages them.

It is up to us, then, to do something about it. As the people who study and teach Old English literature with an eye to the humanity of both the Anglo-Saxons and people of 2015, it is our job to show our students and everyone else that to study literature is to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others, not to promote hate of any kind. This is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses in Anglo-Saxon England – the experiences of women, people who loved others of the same sex, religious minorities, people with disabilities and many others show that there was plenty of hate in medieval Europe. There are also, however, ways in which we can uncover the voices of these people and share the humanity of their experiences. In addition, we can historicize the negative responses of medieval people and show how they were different than those of contemporary people. This may seem like little consolation, but it helps us understand that people do not hate each other for ‘obvious’ reasons that remain constant across different periods.

Instead of focusing on hate, we can also highlight the things that we love about medieval literature, and celebrate the excellent medievalists out there on the internet who are combatting hate. We can look at things like People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr shows that there were plenty of people of colour in medieval Europe, and examines the ways they were represented in Art. We can read the many volumes of good work published by scholars who aim to explore the concept of same-sex desire in the medieval period, starting with John Boswell and continued by people like Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Michael Camille, and many others today. We can also just read the literature itself with an eye to the experiences of those who are underrepresented, and show our students that we can find these people if we look for them. In Old English literature, we can hear the voices of women as an oppressed class in The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and listen to a man who cares about and identifies with a victim of rape in Deor. We can read accounts of people who were not content to conform to their prescribed gender identity in the Lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Euphrosyne, and see scribes who reinforce their gender non-conformity by using pronouns that match their performed gender instead of their biological one. We can show our students that when we celebrate and respect the culture of medieval Europe through its literature, we do so with an understanding of the more problematic elements and the people that were hurt by them, and that we can transfer our skills in understanding others to our engagement with other people today.

So, when it seems like our work on medieval England has very little to do with the hate and discrimination that we encounter in our twenty-first century lives, it’s important to remember that they are still intimately connected. Hateful attitudes infringe on the study of medieval literature, but we also have an opportunity to combat that hate through our research and teaching. Civic and political engagement are important ways to have a tangible effect on the legal aspect of our society, but we can still have an impact on people’s attitudes by doing what we do best: studying Old English literature.

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The Hooting of the Divine: Free Will and Predestination in the [Owl and the Nightingale] and the [Consolation of Philosophy]

One particular poem that I have been reading slowly and carefully for my candidacy exams is the early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale. The poem, which is usually dated around the late twelfth of early thirteenth century, is a classic example of the surprisingly popular medieval genre of allegorical bird debates. In this work, there is an exchange of insults between a dour owl and a fiery nightingale, who argue about which one of them is of greater benefit to humanity. Some of their arguments fall into the realm of very low humour – the nightingale accuses owlets of “fouling … up” (96) their own nests, and the owl admonishes the nightingale for hanging around human latrines (588).

Other sections of their argument, however, are drawn into much loftier matters. After the nightingale accuses the owl of being more useful as a corpse to scare crows away than when she is alive, she takes a more spiritual turn in portraying the owl as an augury of misfortune. She says that humans are justified in hating owls for always being the harbingers of sorrow. The owl takes great exception to this, but not because it is false. She confirms that she has foreknowledge of human fortunes and that she is often blamed for them, but that it is grossly unfair that she is assigned responsibility for them. She defends herself in a speech that I have translated below:

If anyone is to fall into misfortune,
Why should he blame his sorrow on me?
Even though I saw his harm before,
It does not follow that it came from me.
If you see a blind man,
Who does not know any right way,
Whose path is heading for a ditch,
And he falls, and gets dirty,
Do you believe, if I saw it all,
That it would come about sooner because of me?
So it goes with respect to my knowledge:
When I sit on my bough,
I know and I see very clearly,
And some men come to harm right there,
Shall he, that knows nothing of this,
Blame it on me, because I know about it?
Shall he blame his mishap on me
Because I am wiser than he?
When I see that some wretch
Is near harm, I cry a great deal,
And ask greatly that he shield himself,
Because strong harm is coming toward him.
And though I cry loud and soft
It all comes to pass through God’s will.
Why do people want to complain about me,
Even though I inform them with truth?
Even if I warn them for a year,
Harm is not therefore nearer to them:
I sing to them, because I wish
That they should understand well
That something bad is close by to them,
When I send my hooting to them. (1233-1264)

[Þat eni man beo falle in odwite,
Wi schal he me his sor atwite?
Þah ich iseo his harm biuore,
Ne comeþ hit noȝt of me þaruore.
Þah þu iseo þat sum blind mon,
Þat nanne rihtne wei ne con,
To þare diche his dweole fulied,
An falleþ, and þarone sulied
Wenest þu, þah ich al iseo,
Þat hit for me þe raþere beo?
Alswo hit fareþ bi mine witte:
Hwanne ich on mine bowe sitte,
Ich wot & iseo swiþe brihte
An summe men kumed harm þarrihte,
Schal he, þat þerof no þing not,
Hit wite me, for ich hit wot?
Schal he his mishap wite me
For ich am wisure þane he?
Hwanne ich iseo þat sum wrechede
Is manne neh, inoh ich grede,
An bidde inoh þat hi heom schilde,
For toward heom is [harm vnmilde].
Ah þah ich grede lude an stille
Al hit itid þurþ Godes wille.
Hwi wulleþ men of me hi mene,
Þah ich mid soþe heo awene?
Þah ich hi warni al þat ȝer,
Nis heom þerfore harem no þe ner:
Ah ich heom singe, for ich wolde
Þat hi wel understonde schulde
Þat sum unselþe heom is ihende,
Hwan ich min huing to heom sende.]

As A.C. Cawley and others have noted, this passage echoes Book 5 of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in which the speaker is particularly worried about the relationship between Divine foreknowledge and free will. The Consolation of Philosophy is a meditation in the form of a dialogue between a central speaker, ostensibly a persona of Boethius himself, who is imprisoned and about to be executed, and a personified figure of Philosophy. He is made ill by his sorrows, and the allegorical figure of Lady Philosophy comes to him in order to offer a remedy for his despair. In the first book, she assesses the extent of his despair and the depth of his current knowledge. She concludes that all is not lost, but he still has a long way to go towards the truth of Providence and the attainment of happiness. In the second book, the two discuss the nature of Fortune, and provide the earliest literary depiction of the Wheel of Fortune. Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that it is in the nature of Fortune to be constantly fickle, which sounds like something of an oxymoron, and that people should be grateful for what they have. She also notes that more possessions and worldly honours are fleeting, so they are not worth much anyway. Having warmed up her interlocuter with secular examples, she is ready to turn towards his Christian education.

In the third book, Lady Philosophy turns to the attainment of the ultimate Good, which she equates with God. She argues that all of the things that seem like happiness on earth end up bringing about more harm than good. The only way to achieve the highest good is to aspire to Blessedness, which is oneness with God. The communion of all things with God subsequently guarantees that all things are ruled by Providence – if God is in everything, than everything is governed by God’s will. In the fourth book, the conversation interrogates the problem of justice and evil men. They agree that evil men are ultimately to be pitied, because they will end up with a much worse fate than those who meet with misfortune on earth, and are not even worth a thought from men who are pointed towards blessedness. When it is time for the fifth and final book of the dialogue, Boethius is troubled by the problem of free will: if God knows about everything before it happens, then how do humans maintain free will? This is especially troubling in light of their recent conversation about evil men. If people have no choice but to act in a preordained manner, then where is the justice in God punishing the wicked? If God knows about bad things before they happen, then why doesn’t Providence stop them from happening?

This is the theological point that also seems to be troubling the bird debaters. Though the nightingale is surely not attributing any divinity to the owl, she is still suspicious of her supernatural foreknowledge. Just as the Boethius character feels cheated by an omniscient God that allows for evil deeds and punishes them anyway, the nightingale sees the owl’s foreknowledge of human misfortunes as a kind of betrayal. In the passage excerpted above, the owl is forced to take on the role of Lady Philosophy and explain that there is no correlation between foreknowledge of human events and the events themselves. Her example of the blind man is somewhat comical counterproductive in the first instance – a reasonable person would indeed blame a bystander who did nothing to stop a blind man from falling into a ditch. She is, however, echoing Lady Philosophy, who asks and answers a similar question: “When you see something happening in the present, your gaze doesn’t convey any necessity upon the object, does it? No.” (Book 5, Prosa 6). In other words, the observation of an event has no influence on its outcome. While twentieth-century physicists might take issue with this notion in certain contexts, it is true enough for both Lady Philosophy and the owl.

The owl rescues her example of the blind man in the second part of her argument, in which she reveals that she does her best to do something about the blind man falling into the ditch by warning humans. Unfortunately, however, they are unable to understand her “huing” (1264), a fact she does not seem to quite realize. She doesn’t know why humans never take heed of her warnings, and must go on to do her best to avert all of the misfortune she sees coming. Her misunderstood hooting also echoes Boethius, when his speaker skeptically asks how one might distinguish the mysterious Divine Plan from random chance. Lady Philosophy counters his skepticism by saying that “just because you don’t know the reasons for such arrangements, you shouldn’t doubt that everything is done rightly, since a good ruler governs the world” (130). The fact that humans do not always understand the signs, for Boethius and the Owl and the Nightingale poet, does not guarantee that God does not exist, but only the lack of human capacity for understanding.

Both the Consolation of Philosophy and the Owl and the Nightingale are cut off before they come to satisfactory endings. The bird debate comes to a stalemate, and the contestants fly off to seek out the wise judgement of a man named Nicholas of Guildford. The Consolation of Philosophy ends with a kind of peaceful acceptance, but we do not learn the fate of the unfortunate prisoner. It is not necessary, however, for any of the characters to experience the actual events that God knows about in advance. It is sufficient for them to make peace with the fact that God’s knowledge of future events does prevent them from exercising their free will to its fullest extent, and that God has their best interest at heart when these events do unfold. They must simply go forth and do their best to listen to the hooting of the Divine.

Works Cited:

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Scott Goins and Barbara H Wyman. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.

Cawley, A. C. “Astrology in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’.” Modern Language Review (1951): 161-174.

Stanley, Eric Gerald, ed. The Owl and the Nightingale. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1964.

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The Working Women of Piers Plowman

As I take another read through William Langland’s Piers Plowman, one particular passage caught my attention in a new way: the author’s portrait of impoverished women as the ‘deserving poor’ in Passus IX of the C-text. I have translated lines 70 to 87 below, doing my best to preserve both the sense and the style of Langland’s original:

Nobody knows, I believe, who is neediest of all
Except for the dearth of those who dwell near, who deserve our attention,
As penalized prisoners and the impoverished in slums,
Burdened with babies and bills of debt;
What they save from spinning, they spend on rent,
On milk and on meals, to make what they can
To feed their families who are faint from hunger.

And they likewise suffer from lack,
And woe in wintertime and waking up in the nights
To rise in their rooms and rock the cradle,
Both to card and to comb, to clean and to mend,
To scrape and to scrub, to scratch out a living,
It is heartbreaking to hear and hard to discuss
The woe of these women who wait in the slums,
And of their perennial peers with palpable sorrow,
Both starving and unsatisfied, to stay afloat.
Embarrassed to beg and busy concealing
At noon and at night what they need to get by.

[Woet no man, as Y wene, who is worthy to haue
Ac that most neden are oure neyhebores, and we nyme gode hede,
Ac prisones in puttes and pore folk in cotes,
Charged with childrene and chief lordes rent;
That they with spynnyng may spare, spenen hit on hous-huyre,
Both in mylke and in mele, to make with papelotes
To aglotye with here gurles that greden aftur fode.

And hemsulue also soffre muche hunger
And wo in wynter-tymes and wakynge on nyhtes
To rise to the reule to rokke the cradel,
Both to carde and to kembe, to cloute and to wasche,

To rybbe and to rele, rusches to pylie,
That reuthe is to rede or in ryme shewe
The wo of this wommen that wonyeth in cotes
And of monye other men that moche wo soffren,
Bothe afyngred and afurste, to turne the fayre outard
And ben abasched for to begge and wollen nat be aknowe
What hem nedeth at here neyhebores at noon and at eue.]

Even in translation, it is easy to detect the incredible pathos of Langland’s description of this group of women that is rarely discussed in such early verse. Doubly marginalized by their gender and their class, women coping with abject poverty are seldom considered worthy subjects of discussion for Middle English poetry. As Geoffrey A. Shepherd has noted, there is no earlier example of poetry that “conveys the felt and inner bitterness of poverty” (172).

Derek Pearsall’s explanation of the above passage in his annotated edition of the C-Text adds another layer to the destitution of these women, saying that the lines “describe the poverty of women, whether widows or otherwise left single to bring up a family by themselves” (l. 73-83 n.). Though the desperation of these women suggests that they may not have partners to share in the task of raising children, this is not necessarily the case. There is no need to assume that women who are engaged in a daily struggle for survival, in Langland’s time as now, would be in a significantly better position if they had husbands. The notion of a division between bread-winning and domestic roles within the family is more salient in a post-industrial world, especially within an economic group that cannot afford to observe normative ideas of social behaviour.

Whether or not this passage indeed describes the plight of single mothers or that of impoverished mothers in general, it is remarkable in that it passes a ‘Bechdel test’ of sorts, which is rare in Piers Plowman. The Bechdel test is a yardstick from feminist film criticism named for the author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which measures whether a film has at least two named female characters, and they have a conversation about something other than a man. The above passage from Passus IX does not pass the test as it is thus articulated – the women described have neither names nor voices. It does, however, distinguish itself in a similar sense. Though it involves the male narrator speaking about unnamed women, it involves a sustained passage that has nothing to do with men. This is the reason, I think, that Pearsall and others have identified these women as single mothers – it is so unusual to have such a passage in Langland’s work that many have read the absence of these women’s husbands in the text as a negative presence. If we turn away from the spectral presence of men in this passage and instead attend to Langland’s portrayal of women, we can see a new respect and heroism for women who may be wives, and thus otherwise given little consideration in fourteenth-century society.

It is often rather difficult to conduct a sustained reading of women in Piers Plowman, as most instances of gender contrast surround allegorical figures like Lady Meed and Holy Church. Though there is undoubtedly food for thought in those passages, they are less likely to give us insight into the lived experiences of women in the fourteenth century. This does not mean, however, that Piers Plowman does not lend itself to a textured exploration of women and gender in literary representation and reality. By looking at Langland’s affective response to the abject social conditions around him, we can begin to uncover greater complexity in his portrayal of women.

Works Cited

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008.

Shepherd, Geoffrey. “Poverty in Piers Plowman.” Social Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton. Ed. T.h. Aston, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 169-190.


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Annals, Chronicles, and Histories, Oh My!: Hayden White’s [The Content of the Form] and Narrative History

Recently I have been reading and thinking quite a bit about medieval English chronicles, especially the Middle English Prose Brut and its predecessors. The text is translated from the Anglo-Norman Brut, which in turn drew material from sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, but many versions eventually continue into the historical present of their recorders. The Brut texts, which give accounts of King Lear and King Arthur, as well as containing their fair share of giants and dragons, trouble the divide between history and literature. As I consider this distinction further, I have been reading Hayden White’s The Content of the Form.

In White’s first chapter, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” he considers the drawbacks in the use of narrative in the discipline of history. He points out that taking historical events and weaving them into a grand narrative that fits into a modern conception of a neat story is not a very “scientific” way of doing history. For White, the narrativization of history “is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (14). In order to gain more perspective on how narrative affects the way we understand the discipline of history, White proposes to examine types of historical writing that involve less narrative, or else use narrative in a radically different way. For this, he turns to medieval historical writing, in a rare example of a contemporary theorist using medieval texts in a thoughtful and judicious way. His objects of analysis are the annal and the chronicle, which he treats

not as the imperfect histories they are conventionally conceived to be, but rather as particular products of possible conceptions of historical reality, conceptions that are alternatives to, rather than failed anticipations of, the fully realized historical discourse that modern history is supposed to embody. (6)

It is rather refreshing to see that White is not intending to affirm the supremacy of the history preferred by the privileged subject. Though he ultimately comes out in favour of narrative history, he stresses that it is only one form of historical discourse.

The most radically different form of narrative discussed by White is the annal, which he exemplifies by reproducing an excerpt from the Annals of Saint Gall. This text, which records events occurring in the eighth century in what is now France, is concise in the extreme in its list of events corresponding to the years in which they occurred. As can be seen below, the deeds of great men are recorded alongside the health of crops.

  1. Hard winter. Duke Gottfried died.
  2. Hard year and deficient in crops.


  1. Flood everywhere.


  1. Pippin, mayor of the palace, died.
  2. 716. 717.
  3. Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction.


  1. Charles fought against the Saxons.
  2. Theudo drove the Saracens out of Aquitaine.
  3. Great crops.



  1. Saracens came for the first time.






  1. Blessed[1] Bede, the presbyter, died.
  2. Charles fought against the Saracens at Poitiers on Saturday.


734.                                                                                         (White 6-7)

White acknowledges that this record is not entirely without narrative, as it is indeed “‘referential’ and contains a representation of temporality” (6). It does, however, resist many features that we might normally attribute to a narrative history. Most importantly, it lacks any “suggestion of any necessary connection between one event and another” (6) – Saracens come and go, but there is no indication that these comings and goings have anything to do with each other, as the historian has not felt the need to posit any retrospective notion of causality. The fact that they are mentioned as coming for the first time indicates that there is retrospective knowledge of the Saracens coming more than once (8), but the annalist still declines to impose an explanation. Another feature of narrative history that the annal eschews is the assignation of relative importance of the events it records. There is no distinction made between the health of dukes and grains, or between the deaths of local government officials and far off churchmen. To be sure, it is a curated list of events that seem important to this particular annalist – just looking at the blank years is enough to convince us that there must have been events that did not capture the interest of this writer. But the lack of relative importance still gives the effect of flattening the value attached to the entries. The reader of this document is left to their own deductions about how these events might fit together, and read the events in terms of their own particular values – anyone involved in the planning and execution of the annual planting season will use this annal very differently than someone who is more politically minded.

The chronicle is a form of history that contains a few more elements of narrative, but still does not look exactly like what we might call a narrative history. This is not to say that there is a teleological connection between these different forms – the annal is not slouching towards the modern history, picking up narrative elements along the way. The chronicle is simply a form that uses narrative in a different way. It, like the annal, is organized chronologically and comprises a list of kings, queens, and events that are of interest to the chronicler, but it is comprised of the sorts of sentences and narrative progression that we are used to when reading history. It lacks other features of retrospective historical interpretation, however, partially by virtue of its lack of temporal distance – chronicles often lead right up to the chronicler’s present. It does not present a neat story with a beginning, middle, and end, because neither the author nor the audience knows the end yet. Unlike the annal, chronicles can contain explicit moralizing, and often assign historical importance to different figures by devoting a different amount of text to each one. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, devotes a significant portion of his text to recounting the life of King Arthur, but breezes through many of the kings before and after him. The chronicle does not, however, self-consciously attempt in many cases to propose a meaning for the events that it relates, as later narrative histories tend to do.

White argues for the value of considering these alternative forms of history as more “scientific” forms of history, as has been upheld by the Annales school of historiography. The act of envisioning a way of doing a history that makes a more sparing use of narrativization also allows the historian to think more carefully about how narrative is used in his or her own work. He does not, however, call for a return to this type of historiography in modern historical practice. Instead, he turns to Paul Ricoeur and emphasizes that while historians should always be self-conscious that the narrative they present is in no way self-evident, “it is because historical events possess a narrative structure that historians are justified in regarding stories as valid representations of such events and treating such representations as explanations of them” (171). He defends this conception of historical events as narrative objects by taking the agency of historical figures into account. Unlike a phenomenon that occurs independently of human interference and must be empirically after the fact, historians deal with data that has been enacted on purpose. Yes, historians are often interested in things that are beyond human control, but their ultimate object of study is the way humans choose to react to such things, and how they interact with one another. White contends that since humans have some awareness of the past and the future, they live their lives according to some sort of narrative, at least to some extent: “historical agents prospectively prefigure their lives as stories with plots. This is why the historian’s retrospective emplotment[2] of historical events cannot be the product of the imaginative freedom enjoyed by the writer of fictions” (173). In other words, narrative history is essentially a collaborative enterprise between the historical agent as author of his own life and the historian as its retrospective editor.

While this notion is a very comforting image of human agency, it seems a rather anthropocentric and idealistic concept. It would be nice to imagine that historical agents have such control over their lives that they might be considered the authors of history, but it may be foolish to be so confidence in the power of the historical agent. Instead, it may be better to consider a weaker version of this theory that relies on the collaborative history-making of a network of people and peoples that have been culturally saturated in narrative. Though it may be too egotistical to suggest that individual historical agents can follow through with a well-designed plan for the events of their life, the sum total of agents’ interactions with each other can be said to be guided by a collective cultural sense of narrative.

In this case, the chronicle and history itself can be said to have a chicken-and-egg[3] relationship. Do historical events create the larger (albeit imperfect) narrative that the chronicle constructs as history progresses, or does the cultural narrative posited by the chronicle influence historical actors (either individually or collectively) to produce results that fall in line with the overarching narrative?



[1] “Blessed Bede” is here a translation of “Beda Venerabilis,” an epithet that was applied to Bede about a century after his death (which actually occurred in 735). It became a common place title, rather than a value judgment.

[2] The word “emplotment” was coined by Paul Ricoeur, and refers to the practice of turning a series of historical events into a narrative, thus bestowing a “plot” on the events.

[3] My thanks to Angel Matos for this notion.

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That came to pass, this also may!

As I continue to finalize my reading lists, I want to make sure I regularly read from all my lists, in order to form connections and keep my ideas flowing over the course of my exam process. I also want to keep practicing my Old English translation, so I have been concentrating on a poem that I have been turning over in my head since I read it for the first time several months ago in Seamus Heaney’s haunting translation: Deor. Much of its ear-worm quality comes from the fact that it has a repeating refrain – this makes it rather rare amongst Anglo-Saxon poems, as Bradley points out (362). It also particularly appeals to me because it involves a correspondence of lived experience between the speaker and figures from the past, as all are human with the capacity for suffering and triumph. Moreover, there is no distinction between the suffering of men and women – the anguish of a pregnant rape victim is depicted alongside a crippled and enslaved hero. What follows is my very rough translation of the poem, for which I consulted Murray MacGillivray’s notes and glossary, as well as several different translations. I intend to do a more poetic translation at some point in time, but this version will help provide a sense of what the poem is about before I dive any further into it.



Ed. Murray McGillivray. Online Corpus of Old English Poetry (OCOEP).

Welund him be wurman    wræces cunnade.
Anhydig eorl    earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe    sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce,    wean oft onfond,

siþþan hine Niðhad on    nede legde
swoncre seonobende    on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Beadohilde ne wæs    hyre broþra deaþ
on sefan swa sar    swa hyre sylfre þing:

þæt heo gearolice    ongieten hæfde
þæt heo eacen wæs—    æfre ne meahte
þriste geþencan,    hu ymb þæt sceolde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We þæt Mæðhilde    monge gefrugnon

wurdon grundlease    Geates frige,
þæt hi seo sorglufu    slæp ealle binom.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Ðeodric ahte    þritig wintra
Mæringa burg—    þæt wæs monegum cuþ.

Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We geascodan    Eormanrices
wylfenne geþoht;    ahte wide folc
Gotena rices.    Þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig    sorgum gebunden,

wean on wenan,    wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerice    ofercumen wære.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Siteð sorgcearig    sælum bidæled,
on sefan sweorceð,    sylfum þinceð

þæt sy endeleas    earfoða dæl.
Mæg þonne geþencan    þæt geond þas woruld
witig dryhten    wendeþ geneahhe,
eorle monegum    are gesceawað,
wislicne blæd,    sumum weana dæl.

Þæt ic bi me sylfum    secgan wille,
þæt ic hwile wæs    Heodeninga scop,
dryhtne dyre.    Me wæs Deor noma.
Ahte ic fela wintra    folgað tilne,
holdne hlaford,    oþþæt Heorrenda nu,

leoðcræftig monn    londryht geþah,
þæt me eorla hleo    ær gesealde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!


My Translation

Welund himself knew misery by worms.
The brave man knew hardship,
had to himself for company sorrow and longing,
winter-cold misery; He often found woe,
since Nithhad by force laid a thin sinew-bond onto the better man.

That came to pass, this also may!

Beadohilde was not as sorrowful from her brothers’ death
as from her own thing,
that she certainly understood that she was pregnant;
She was never able to think confidently,
about what she should do.

That came to pass, this also may!

We found out that for Maethhilde,
many became the bottomless embraces of the Geat,
that the sorrowful love deprived her of all sleep. 

That came to pass, this also may!

Theodric possessed for thirty winters the city of Maeringa;
That was known to many. 

That came to pass, this also may!

We discovered the wolfen thought of Ermanaricus;
He occupied widely the people of the kingdom of the Goths.
That was a harsh king.
Many a man lived bound to sorrows,
woe in expectation,
often wishing that this kingdom was overcome. 

That came to pass, this also may!

He lived sorrowful, deprived of joy,
he grew dark in his spirit,
it seemed to him that the troubles would be endless.
I might then think that throughout this world the wise Lord changes enough,
shows honour to many a man, true splendor,
a portion of woes to some.

That I by myself wish to tell,
that I once was a scop of the Heodenings,
dear Lord.

The name ‘Deor’ was mine.

I had for many winters a good fellowship, a loyal lord,
until now Heorrenda, a man skilled in poetry,
received a privilege that the protecting lord once gave to me.

That came to pass, this also may!

Upon the first few readings of the poem, Deor seems like a poem of hope and determination in the face of adversity. The speaker relates various hardships of figures from Gothic legend, many details of which have been obscured by time, and insists in a recurring refrain that if their troubles came to an end, his lot likewise has a chance of improving: “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” (l. 7, 13, 17, 20, 27, 42). There has been a great deal of consistency in translators’ approaches to this seemingly simple line – Seamus Heaney renders it with his characteristic simple elegance by having his speaker reassure himself that “That passed over, this can too” (Heaney 7). S.A.J. Bradley, known for his linguistically accurate prose translations, gives “That passed away: so may this” (7). Even Burton Raffel, who has been known to approach Old English translation with poetic creativity (such as his insertion of ‘a convent of wooden nuns’ into his version of “A Woman’s Message” (Raffel 36)), employs the phrase “That passed, and so may this” (7). Closer philological examination of the poem shows, however, that this short phrase may not be so easy to render into modern English as it seems. While one of the meanings given in Bosworth-Toller’s dictionary for “ofereode” is indeed “to pass, pass off or away, be over, come to an end,” another is “to come upon, attack (of disease, sleep, etc. ),” “to conquer,” or “to pass a moral limit, to transgress.” While all of these meanings might indicate that an event has happened, not all of them are a reassuring statement that since the mythological figures that the speaker has depicted have ended happily. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that the poet often leaves the end of his mytho-historical vignettes unsaid, presumably relying on his audience’s cultural knowledge of the characters depicted within – knowledge that has in many cases not survived.

 An exception to this dearth of backstory concerns the story of Weland the Smith, which provides material for the vignettes in the first part of the poem. He is well-known in Germanic mythology, and Raffel uses Weland’s story to begin his translation on a triumphant note, letting readers know that the sorrow had indeed passed. He writes: “Wayland, a legendary smith whom Nithad had crippled and enslaved, forged himself metal wings, killed Nithad’s sons, drugged and violated Nithad’s daughter, Beadhild, and flew to safety. Nithad’s kingdom was Wermland, now Western Sweden” (Raffel 57). This backstory sounds triumphant enough, if one ignores the fact that the second character that Deor compares himself to is Beadhild, the drugged and violated. Furthermore, none of this triumph is related in the poem – only Weland’s maiming and enslavement in Nithad’s “wintercealde” kingdom is poetically rendered. We hear of cruel kings, raped and abandoned women, and a city that endured the occupation of a tyrant for thirty years. Yes, these happenings pass away, but this does not mean that those to whom they happen survive them with any sense of wholeness. Rather than taking solace in the fact that the men and women of old made it through their sorrows that passed over, the speaker may be preparing himself for the horror that may be visited upon him, now that he has lost the favour of his “holdne hlaford.” In this light, it might be more accurate to translate “ofereode” as “come to pass” in the dictionary definition of “to come upon, attack” rather than simply “pass over.” This robs the poem of its hopeful outlook, but I think it might restore some of the melodrama to Deor’s narrative – he does, after all, compare the loss of his job to some of the worst hardships imaginable. We will never know if Deor’s plight passed over, but my exams also may!


I would welcome other perspectives on Deor translation – anyone have a favourite translation or way of rendering the refrain?


Works Cited


Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Dent, 1982.

Heaney, Seamus. “Seamus Heaney reads Deor.” Poems Out Loud. W.W. Norton & Company. 24 August 2014                  <;.

Raffel, Burton, trans. Poems from the Old English. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.


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A Vibrant, Variegated, and Vivacious Revival


I begin the official portion of my exam reading with a seminal book by a man whose name is one of the most magnificent in all of medieval studies: Thorlac Turville-Petre. His 1977 volume titled The Alliterative Revival aims to introduce the alliterative poetic movement of the fourteenth century as well as make it clear to his readers that there is one thing that this alliterative revival lacks – homogeneity. According to Turville-Petre, many readers have assumed for one reason or another that the poems of this period (including Langland’s Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain-Poet, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, and a number of other romances, histories, and moral poetry) are stylistically uniform. He goes as far to refer to an early twentieth century theory that many of these texts were written by the same man “one of the most absurd literary hypotheses of all time” (28), which fell out of vogue when “it was pointed out that none of the proofs adduced in favour of the hypothesis had any substance and that the poems, being written in a variety of styles, with different metrical patterns and different dialects, could hardly be the work of one man” (28). While Turville-Petre rejects this theory as utterly ridiculous, he is slightly more patient, but still in disagreement, with those that assume an unbroken oral connection between that alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon poets and the alliterative revival several centuries later. Overall, his argument depicts the poems of the alliterative revival as a movement of great creativity and diversity whose works resist any attempt to be reduced to derivatives of Anglo-Saxon poetry or one another.

One of the more intricate parts of Turville-Petre’s argument is his assertion that there is no good reason to believe that there was an unbroken line of oral alliterative tradition between the Anglo-Saxons and the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century. While there are many similarities between the poetry of the alliterative revival and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a closer examination of the English poetry of the intervening centuries, which has oft been neglected in literary studies (See Elaine Treharne’s Living Through Conquest), suggests that this sense of continuity may be misleading. Turville-Petre reasons that if such an oral tradition was in existence all along with no written trace, it would be difficult to reconcile this with the distinct and “loose” (8) style of Early Middle English alliterative works like Laȝamon’s Brut. Instead, he offers an alternative explanation for the most striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and that of the fourteenth-century – the fact that the standard pattern of lines is based on the alliteration of all stressed syllables except for the last of the line. Turville-Petre argues that the reason that two different (albeit related) traditions might land upon this same practice is that the alliteration is a functional element designed to mark out the stressed syllables, and that “the last stressed syllable of the line is very seldom in an ambiguous position” (17). In addition, maintaining a difference between the last stress and other stresses allows it to “signal[…] the completion of a metrical unit” (17). While the author makes a convincing case both for the lack of evidence for an invisible oral tradition and the logical functionality of the alliterative style, the reader is still required to make a leap of faith to assume that two heterogeneous groups of poets separated by centuries might independently realize the efficiency of such a pattern. It seems more prudent to posit a more moderate view that the fourteenth century poets managed to revive some distantly version of alliterative verse, without necessarily requiring a robust oral tradition.

After establishing diachronic heterogeneity between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century alliterative verse, Turville-Petre turns to celebrate the synchronic diversity of the later movement. His sentiments are echoed by Greg Delanty in the preface to the 2010 anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation titled The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, in which Delanty muses that “we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf” (Delanty xv). In reality, the poetry of both traditions is full of diversity and originality, as Turville-Petre notes in prose worth quoting in its entirety:

It is the flexibility of the alliterative line that makes it so valuable to a writer of a long and diverse narrative poem full of action, description, argument, reflection and any number of topics demanding variations of pace and emphasis. In Morte Arthure and The Wars of Alexander the form proves suitable for the excitement and turmoil of the careers of those two great heroes; in Piers Plowman and Wynnere and Wastoure it can accommodate the niceties of theological discussion and political debate; in Patience and Purity[1] it can re-vivify Old Testament history. Nothing is more mistaken than the belief that alliterative style is a homogenous one. (Turville-Petre 50)

Despite the richness of the tradition extolled by Turville-Petre and several others since, many poems of the alliterative revival have not reached the ‘mainstream’ of Middle English literary studies in the same way as the work named authors such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Turville-Petre ends his book by musing on the beauty and suitability of alliterative verse for a variety of topics, and ventures that “it may be time for a second alliterative revival” (128). Though it may be some time before contemporary poets take up the call to write in alliterative verse, it is certainly time for a revival of the study and teaching of this work.

[1] Purity is more commonly known today as Cleanness, the second poem in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. None of the poems in this manuscript have original titles, but have been given the names Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by modern editors. It was once pointed out to me by Dr. David Coley that if one retains the title of Purity, the four titles make up an alliterative line, with the first three titles alliterating and the fourth differing.

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