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

fredag 31. mars 2017

Language and embrace - ruminations for March 31

In the medievalist section of social media, March 31 is International Hug A Medievalist Day, founded by Doctor Sarah Laseke, currently of Leiden University. This is the day when social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook explode with images of embraces from medieval manuscripts, using scenes of demons battling, furtive and illegal embraces, amorous encounters, scenes of the Visitatio Mariae, the kiss of Judas, and so on.

As a medievalist, I find these displays of virtual intimacy somewhat heart-warming, and it made me remember an often quoted passage from Derek Walcott's book-length poem Omeros, in which he states:

Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms

I have loved this verse ever since I first read it in the spring of 2008, which was the second term of my first year at university, and a time when I had just starting to explore unfamiliar literatures. It is a pleasing thought that language seeks to contain what is loved in its embrace, and the equation of language and love through this imagery is one that I find immensely moving.

The further I venture into the fields of medieval studies, and the more I explore the literatures of the medieval period, the more aware I become that Derek Walcott's description of language is a highly idealized one, and one that should be sought but one which often is discarded. Instead, the sad truth is this: Language is often used to destructive ends, even when it is cloaked in a semblance of love and goodness.

There is nothing uniquely medieval about this. In the modern world we see more than sufficient examples of how the choice of words marks up delineations between us and them. This is why, for instance, a Syrian child coming to the UK is termed a migrant, whereas a Brit settling down in Spain refers to himself as an expat.

Using words as tools of alienation appears to be a human constant, and is just as much a modern feature as it is a medieval feature. For me, however, the medieval use of words and language in this way has been very much on my mind recently, as research has brought me more closely into how medieval writers would talk about language to identify the cultural others, and how language was an important way to emphasize someone's degree of humanity.

I recently worked on an article where I noted the frequency of sources that would remark about this and that people that they spoke unintelligibly or like animals. One favourite example comes from Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, in which he refers to the Northern Norwegians as not so much speaking as gnashing their teeth together, so that their neighbours can barely understand them. (It is worth noting that he probably received this information in Denmark.)

Another example that I have worked a lot on lately is the Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passione gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris. This work, a saint-biography of Knud IV of Denmark, also known as Saint Knud Rex, was written in the 1110s by the English monk Aelnoth of Canterbury, and records how Saint Knud was killed by an angry mob of Danish noblemen and commoners in Odense in 1086. In order to emphasize the uncivilised behaviour of the regicides, Aelnoth often depicts them as raging, and in one memorable instance states that they behaved "more porcorum", in the manner of swine.

This connection of language and beastly behaviour has deep roots in Christian literature. Among the most famous early examples is perhaps the encounter between Saint Antony of Egypt and a satyr, as told by Jerome in his Life of Paul of Thebes. Here, the satyr, and also the hippocentaur, are speaking in a manner that is difficult to understand. In this way, their lack of language, their semi-animal composition, and their uncivilised inhabitation all combine to emphasize their otherness. The trope is an often repeated one, and draws on the same old approach to language and civilization that once made the Ancient Greeks coin the term "barbar" for someone outside the Greek world, meaning someone speaking unintelligibly.

In light of all these instances where languages are employed as demarcators of us and them, as fences you set up to identify yourself as inhabiting a different space than your neighbour, it is comforting to sometimes embrace the notion of Walcott's verse that it is the language's desire to enclose the loved world in its arms.

And this is also what medievalists will be doing tomorrow, when we engage in the social media phenomenon of #Whanthataprille, an online celebration of medieval languages.

Sometimes, it is good for the soul to be a medievalist.

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