And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 20. november 2011

Adversus Obfuscari

Down there you do not follow a single path
When you philosophise; so carried away are you
By showing off and the ideas it gives you.
- Paradiso, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

In the course of research for my MA thesis I was directed to an article on the hagiography of Edmund of East Anglia (d. 869) which might provide some interesting details for comparative studies. The article in question is found in the anthology Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, a collection of essays edited by P. H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis, compiled for the purpose of shedding new light on old issues by focussing on aspects pertaining to gender studies. The compilation covers a vast timespan and includes a range of topics, some of them very interesting and relevant to my dissertation. Despite my overall good impression - and my firm conviction as to the project's importance - there was nonetheless one article in particular that made me seethe with scholarly rage to such an extent that I completed the opus mainly out of spite. This blogpost is therefore dedicated to a fierce rebuttal of poorly applied gender theory and scholarship that serves only to obstruct the usefulness of a discipline.

I have chosen the title Adversus Obfuscari as a play on Irenaeus' two books against heresies, Adversus Haereses, and I have included a neologism whose correctness I in all honesty can't vouch for. Since the article in question serves to sabotage the seriousness of gender history I find it obfuscating and I consider its author - Edward Christie - to be an obfuscator, a point of view I hope the subsequent rant will serve to assess.

The article in question is titled Self-Mastery and Submission: Holiness and Masculinity in the Lives of Anglo-Saxon Martyr-Kings and Edward Christie's aim is to investigate submission and its implication on masculinity in the passions of Edmund and Oswald and how this aligns with the conflicting ideologies of Pagan and Christian heroism of the Anglo-Saxon world. The focal point of the article is an interesting one and I for my part have for a long time been very fascinated by collisions of cultures and their aftermath. However, Christie's argumentation is so fraught with anachronism, so steeped in the bilgewater of obsolete scholarship that the minor points of interest and real scholarly worth are overshadowed by nonsense.

Very little is known about the historical King Edmund. He was king of the East Angles until his death in 869 at the hands of Danish Vikings and this death is all the two near-contemporary written sources can tell us. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser's Life of King Alfred were both composed in the 890s during the reign of Alfred the Great and as such may be considered fairly trustworthy by virtue of proximity in time, but despite being records dated only some 30 odd years after Edmund's death they fail to provide any great detail. Nonetheless it appears that Edmund's death attracted some attention and a generation after his death there were issued coins venerating him as Sancte Eadmund Rex, but what instigated this is not known to us.

From Richard II's Wilton Diptych (late 14th century)

In the latter quarter of the 10th century Abbo of Fleury wrote the first hagiography, Passio sancti Eadmundi, which portrays Edmund as St. Sebastian: tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. As with Sebastian Edmund's death came not because of arrows, but at the hands of the Viking chieftain Hingwar - probably Ivar the Boneless - who decapitated Edmund when the king refused to tell where his treasure was hidden. This is the main point of interest to Edmund's hagiographers. Through submission to the Viking chieftain Edmund performs his passio Christi, the imitation of Christ necessary to attain sainthood, and through his death Edmund conquers in spirit what he could not achieve in the flesh: victory over the Pagans. This also becomes a focal point for Edward Christie.

St. Sebastian (by Sandro Botticelli), the model for Abbo of Fleury's portrayal of Edmund

The opposing ideals of Pagan and Christian culture and the victory in spirit versus victory in the flesh are both elements that can be found in the Medieval matter and as such provides material for scholarly investigation, so where does it all go wrong for Edward Christie? A clear marker of this can be found on page 147 where he writes "Part of my purpose is nonetheless to explore the psychoanalytic reading of Anglo-Saxon heroism (...)". The problem here is of course the psychoanalysis for how do you apply a questionable approach of the 20th century to a Medieval reality whose writers did not know and consequently paid no heed to this way of thinking? It should be pointed out that some aspects of psychoanalysis - in which respect I'm hardly even a layman and am therefore prone to mistakes - can be used propitiously if applied with extreme care, provided - of course - that we have enough material to allow such investigations. I'm thinking here of the implications of childhood trauma, exploration of which may yield some useful information for explaining adult behaviour, but how do you do this when there is no childhood to explore?

Things get worse when Christie goes on to explore the passion of St. Edmund equipped with modern theories, starting with the society of exploit as put forth by 19th century American economic theorist Thorstein Veblen who divided "barbaric" society into "exploit" and "industry". The chief problem here, of course, is that this is anthropological scholarship from the very infancy of anthropology, a field that has undergone significant developments in the past hundred years. Whether Veblen's theories are still valid I don't know and I find it unfortunate that Christie has not taken pains to ensure the reader that they are. Anthropology can be a good way of exploring historical issues, especially since there are certain anthropological constants that manifest themselves in various ways throughout history, but Christie is far too careless in his treatment here. He cites from the Frankish chronicler Fredegar to prove that this division did exist, but to cite merely one example from the vast range of Early Medieval literature to buttress a claim based on 19th century hindsight is not what I consider persuasive.

Christie moves on with this idea of the society of exploit as exemplified by the Viking raiders, quoting Sigmund Freud on kingship who in turn relies on James George Frazer's anthropological studies. The problems here should be evident. Christie has seemingly cherry-picked material from the dawn of anthropology to find support for his approach, although the theories and interpretations of both Freud and Frazer suffer from the scant methodological and theoretical framework of their own time.

As if founding his ideas on this kind of obsolete scholarship was not enough, Edward Christie then considers the decapitation of Edmund along the same lines as Karma Lochrie did in a 1994 article on Judith's beheading of Holofernes in the Beowulf manuscript. In this article Lochrie relied on the ideas of Luce Irigaray and Toril Moi, arguing that the decapitation of Holofernes was a symbolic castration and Christie urges for the possibility of reading Edmund's death as feminising. First of all Christie and Lochrie have completely ignored any scholarship done on the practice of decapitation in Early Medieval and older societies and its spiritual implications. The head has been a forceful symbol down the ages for quite obvious reasons, such as the fact that the head is the centre of reasoning and thinking. There is to my knowledge no evidence to suggest that Celts and Goths collected heads as a symbolic castration. If the Celts and the Goths wanted to castrate their enemies they castrated their enemies, they did not decapitate them. When, according to the first book of Samuel, King Saul said to David he wanted hundred Philistine foreskins David did not return with hundred noses, because when kings of old said they wanted their enemies castrated they did not consider the head a good substitute.

That Holofernes guy was such a dick. (by Botticelli)

Secondly Christie seems to believe that the ideas concocted by radical gender theorists in the 20h century should somehow be relevant to the writers of Anglo-Saxon hagiography. This is anachronistic in the worst sense possible and it obfuscates the entire discourse. The ideas of Irigaray and Moi, perpetuated by Lochrie and Christie, are themselves spawned by the contemporary issues of those who proposed them and as such must be understood in relation to the modern era, not to mention the personalities of the theorists. When Abbo of Fleury wrote the Passio sancti Eadmundi there is no reason to believe he considered the decapitation as anything but a decapitation, the final resort of a Pagan king whose archers had not managed to make Edmund yield to his demands. What is even more certain is that he did not quote, paraphrase or allude to any theories put forth by Irigaray or Moi, and consequently such theories should only be applied with extreme caution and reserve if they are to be applied at all (which I strongly doubt). Edward Christie shows no reserve but rather seems to immerse himself quite happily in a long series of anachronisms and as a result comes up with an utterly unconvicing and unpersuasive argument which is nothing more than poorly applied gender theory.

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