Monday, September 28, 2015

Mosaic Call for Submissions: Scale

Within the biological-ecological sciences from which the term Anthropocene emerged, “scale” has a longer history and broader usage than it does within the now-proliferating philosophical, critical, theoretical, and ethical discourses that address environmentalism, climate change, and the Anthropocene’s status as a sixth major extinction event. For the latter discourses, scale often refers to something “bigger” than we have ever previously encountered: climate change, for instance, as a crisis unprecedented in its scope and in the reorientation, or “reinvention,” of critical protocols that it is said to require. Given the unrelenting scale of such issues as climate change and of factors contributing to it, e.g., the shift from small-scale family farming to massive global-marketing industrial operations, must theory, too, as some suggest, undergo a transition from local and individual to global perspectives? In what might a global imaginary consist, and how might it relate to existing critiques of globalization as but a label for the hegemony of Western culture? Are broader understandings of scale available from within the ecological sciences and, if so, how might these serve as resources for the “greening of theory”?

Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal, invites innovative and interdisciplinary submissions for a special issue on Scale in relation to ecocriticism, the Anthropocene, climate change, and environmental and animal ethics.

Mosaic follows an electronic submission process. If you would like to contribute an essay for review, please visit the website for details. Email any submission questions to mosasub [@] Submissions must be received by March 18, 2016.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Mosaic welcomes submissions that conform to their mandate:

  • Essays may be in English or French and must represent innovative thought (either in the form of extending or challenging current critical positions). Mosaic does not publish fiction, poetry, or book reviews. 
  • Mosaic publishes only original work and  will not consider essays that are part of a thesis or dissertation, have been published previously, or are being considered for publication in another journal or medium. 
  • Preferred length of essays is 7,000 words, to a maximum of 7,500 words. Parenthetical citations and works cited must follow the conventions of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd ed.) or MLA Handbook (7th ed.). Essays may feature illustrations. 
  • Mosaic’s anonymous peer-review process requires that no identifying information appear on the electronic version of the essay itself. Submissions that meet our requirements are sent to specialists in the specific and general area that an essay addresses. Anonymous but complete transcripts of the readers’ reports are sent to the author.  

Address inquiries by email to:
Dr. Dawne McCance
Editor, Mosaic
University of Manitoba, 208 Tier Building
Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 2N2 Canada
Tel: 204-474-8597, Fax: 204-474-7584

Submissions: Submit online at

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ecocriticism at Leeds: Food, Feast, Famine

Food, Feast and Famine: Medieval Ecocriticisms
International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 2016
Call for Papers

Medieval Ecocriticisms seeks papers and/or brief position statements for one or more sessions related to the 2016 Congress theme of “Food, Feast, and Famine.” Given sufficient interest, we will run a round-table session with five to six brief position statements as well as one or more tradition sessions with three twenty-minute papers.

These sessions ask the question, broadly construed: How can ecocritical perspectives illuminate medieval relationships with food, including feast and famine? Papers might consider the effects of weather and war on crop yields, medieval relationships with eating animals, literary constructions or documentary descriptions of any of these and / or other aspects of food in the Middle Ages.

This proposal seeks papers from various disciplines, including art, art history, history, literary studies, archaeology, the history of science, and more, addressing times and places across the medieval period.

Please submit 100-word abstracts with two to four index terms as well as your full name, title, affiliation, and postal and email addresses. The full call for papers, including a link to a list of index terms, is here:

For more information or to propose a paper, contact Heide Estes at

Ecocriticism at Kalamazoo

There are a few sessions planned for the May, 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo that look to be of potential interest for medieval ecocriticism:

The Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages has been allocated space for four sessions organized by Ellen F. Arnold (

Kathryn Vulić ( is organizing a special session on "Wild and Tamed Spaces in Middle English Literature. The organizers for both sessions are open to papers that take ecocritical approaches. 

In addition, Medieval Ecocriticisms ( is organizing a roundtable session on "Why the Middle Ages Matter," seeking explicitly ecocritical brief presentations. Here's the call for papers on that one: 
In their Introduction to Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, Celia Chazelle, Simon Doubleday, Felice Lifshitz, and Amy G. Remensnyder make the case that an understanding of medieval ideas about power and justice helps to illuminate contemporary political and social issues concerned with power: who has it, who doesn’t, how it operates in contemporary nations and cultures. The essays in the volume address gender and sexuality, dis/ability and deviance, race, class, ethnicity and prisons. The editors acknowledge that an important topic not included in the volume is environmental history. They note that the contraction of economies in the early Middle Ages and the attendant reduction in the volumes of garbage produced in comparison to the late Roman era and suggest that this is a possible model for the reduction of consumption today. 
This round-table seeks short presentations that respond to Chazelle et al.’s call for future work on medieval environmental issues by considering what medieval texts and artifacts can teach us about how individuals and polities of the period conceived of their relationships and responsibilities to the non-human. Papers might address agriculture, wilderness, water, animal studies, urbanization, light and darkness, the relationships of gender, race, religion, and dis/ability to environmental questions and formulations, from the perspective of how such medieval formulations matter to the modern world. Papers are sought from a wide variety of disciplines, including but not limited to archaeology, art history, history, and literary studies. 

The Call for Papers for the Congress is here.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Twitterati: Twitter Activism

These are my notes for a presentation in a roundtable discussion on “The Twitterati: Using Twitter in Medieval Scholarship and Pedagogy” organized by Carla Thomas at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, which took place yesterday.


I became an environmentalist when my mother loaned me her copy of Diet for a Small Planet somewhere around 1983, and I learned that Argentinian subsistence farming was under threat from beef grazing for the US hamburger market. And after  spending the past year writing a book about the Anglo-Saxons’ ideas about the environments they lived in, I’ve come to an increasingly strong conviction that a global capitalism predicated on constantly increasing consumption and production is a major contributor to global warming. I’ve long been a believer in the old green mantra, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” to which environmentalists have recently added “refuse,” i.e. refuse to buy, reject consumption. As a result of concentrated thinking about the issues while writing a book over the past year it has become clearer to me that capitalist economies are pushing consumption and growth, while pushing governments (especially that of the US) to enable them to maximize production growth, for instance through the recently passed trans-pacific partnership (TPP) trade agreement. We are long past the point of “sustainable” development.

In writing and speaking in academic contexts about my work, whether scholarly or pedagogical, I make it clear that my work on ecotheory and the Anglo-Saxon world comes with environmental commitments. Writing about attitudes toward the environment in a scholarly forum or teaching students about the environment is based on the assumption that information can lead to change. But for me, environmentalism involves the further commitment to activism. I tell my students that in my courses we assume that climate science is valid, and that I am convinced that climate change is the greatest crisis of our time. We all need to stop consuming. Meat, clothing, water, gasoline, whatever it is, we all need to reduce consumption. Drastically.

But in a scholarly or pedagogical forum, the main goal is to educate. If I push an activist message too hard in a conference paper or in the classroom, I risk alienating the audience or the students. My audience on Twitter, however, is self-selected. If they don’t want to hear my exhortations about climate change, they can un-follow me, and regularly, they do. But if they’re willing to listen in, I will try to educate them as well, in more activist manner.

I’ve been blogging since 2007 and, more recently, tweeting, to try to reach a broader audience and to write in a forum where I don’t feel I have to self-censor. Friends, family, and complete strangers can choose to read my blog or follow my tweets, and can unfollow me if they find them too extreme. I have developed my Twitter account and my blog without reference to friends or family, but rather as a digital space in which I can connect with other people with similar ranges of interest: environmentalism, feminist and queer and anti-racist politics, and issues around disability and chronic illness.

I also participate in Twitter as a follower of other activists. I often hear about demonstrations and protests and, yes, on-line petitions, via twitter. These are the Big Twitterers, with thousands if not millions of followers. But we Little Twitterers have a role to play in Big Twitter Activism: we can boost signal and get the word out to people who might not be following the big accounts. Most of the well-know twitter activist activity has taken place in physical places where I’m not present: Ferguson, Arab Spring, Charleston, and more. Following the twitterstream allows me to know, faster than from the news media, what’s going on. And again, I can retweet in solidarity and support. When demonstrations are happening near me, I often find out on Twitter.

As HuffPo writer 2morrowknight writes in an article on twitter activism, “What is a great activist, you ask? I'll tell you: one who informs you of the issues, inspires you to take action, and empowers you to make a difference.” I can count on one hand people I know I’ve made a difference to, whether writing about vegan cooking or living with chronic illness or moving farther away from consumption and toward a minimalist life. But that’s still a handful of people I’ve made a difference to. And in ripple effect, they’ll have an impact on other people they know. It’s not huge, but Ama Yawson, another HuffPo writer, points to the millions of people using social media and the importance of posting about stories. “Spreading articles about police brutality and intelligent commentary on the subject has led to new highs with respect to awareness and action. Moreover, as news stories relating to the police brutality gain attention, news organizations are encouraged to continue to devote resources to covering cases of police brutality.”

I also live-tweet conferences, which may seem to be very different from hashtag activism. But tweeting, for instance, ecocritical sessions from this conference allows me to let a wider audience – academic and non-academic – know about the fact that people are doing ecologically based work in a variety of humanities disciplines. It also brings my identity as an academic into play with my identity as environmentalist and activist. And it lets non-academics in on a secret: English professors are regular people, too.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Eco Sessions at IMC, Leeds

For those interested in ecocriticism in/and the medieval, here's a list of sessions that may be of interest. If I've missed any, please let me know.

Monday 6 July

14:15 to 15:54

206 Animals and Humans, Humans and Animals: Reflections through Reaction

208 Cultural and Socio-Economic Responses to Extreme Weather and Weather-Related Natural Hazards in the Middle Ages, I

16:30 to 18:00

308 Cultural and Socio-Economic Responses to Extreme Weather and Weather-Related Natural Hazards in the Middle Ages, II

309 Being Led Astray by Medieval Animals: Pharmaceutical Badgers, Hairy Bears, and Vanishing Elephants in Late Medieval Europe

325 Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy, and Power - Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

Tuesday 7 July

16:30 to 18:00

838 Economic Innovation and Environmental Concerns in Late Medieval England: Papers in Honour of Richard Britnell and John Munro, IV

Wednesday 8 July 

09:00 to 10:30

1005 New Approaches to Medical History, with a newly added paper on "Galen and the Horse-Doctors"

14:15 to 15:45

1201 Heaven, Hell, and Heorot: Environments in Anglo-Saxon Literature

1227 Destruction, Desertion, Revival: Medieval Military Invasions and Their Long-Term Socio-Economic and Ecological Effects, I

16:30 to 18:00

1327 Destruction, Desertion, Revival: Medieval Military Invasions and Their Long-Term Socio-Economic and Ecologic Effects, II

19:00 to 20:00

1401 Climate, Land, and Environment at Late Medieval Herstmonceux: A Round Table Discussion

Thursday 9 July

9:00 to 10:30

1505 Landscapes/Seascapes, I: Shaping Territorial Identities

1507 The Anglo-Welsh Frontier in the Middle Ages, I

11:15 to 12:45

1601 Riddling in Anglo-Saxon England and Beyond, II: Eco-Criticism and Animal Studies

14:15 to 15:45

1706 Water: The Control of Nature and the Nature of Control

Monday, May 18, 2015

Kalamazoo 2015: Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays

Not exactly the secret life we were
gathered to discuss!

This past Friday (15 May 2015), I took part in the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies "Secret Lives of Medieval Plants" panel organized by Rob Wakeman (University of Maryland) and Danielle Allor (Rutgers University). My fellow panelists were Allor, Haylie Swenson (George Washington University), and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia). Our charge was to resist plant blindness, the treatment of plants now and then "as passive backdrop or as sessile, stable objects" and to "examine how medieval writers, artists, thinkers, and theologians thought with and became entangled in the secret life of plants." I think we succeeded admirably: our papers built on one another without effort and (even more pleasing) without any prior coordination. Kudos to Rob and Danielle for putting together such a simpatico panel!

Rob started off the session by playing Belly's "Feed the Tree," and then I followed up with the first paper:

Before I can begin speaking to you today about human-plant assemblages in late medieval Cornwall, I have to engage in some unfortunate but necessary brush-clearing. The Middle Cornish Ordinalia plays are so little known at present that this past Monday’s Oxford Today blog entry on the dramas (“Dramatic Discovery at the Bodleian”) was received by Facebook and Twitter’s medievalist communities as though a set of exciting new texts had suddenly been uncovered. (They had not; the blog was essentially an advertisement for an Oxford alum’s forthcoming book on medieval performance sites in Cornwall.) So what are the Cornish Ordinalia? Simply put, they are a trilogy of late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century biblical dramas recorded by a pair of scribes in the mid fifteenth century Bodleian Library MS Bodley 791. These three plays—the Origo Mundi, the Passio Domini, and the Resurrectio Domini—comprise a sort of mini-cycle akin to the larger cycles of Chester and York. The plays were meant to be performed over the course of three consecutive days: the Origo and the Passio both end with a character summing up the action and encouraging the audience to return for the next day’s show. We don’t know exactly when during the festive year the plays would have been enacted, and we have only circumstantial evidence placing them in the vicinity of Glasney College in Penryn, a house of secular canons established by the Bishop of Exeter. (Said evidence consists of an extensive set of Penryn-area land grants given to various characters in the plays as rewards for good service.) The aspect of the Ordinalia which has received the greatest amount of attention from scholars has been their plen-an-gwary (or “playing place”) method of staging: Bodley 791 contains three stage plans, one for each play, depicting a circular performance area (or platea) with eight character-specific sites (or sedes) distributed around the circumference of the circle.

Looks a lot like the cross-section
of a tree trunk doesn't it?

Above is the plan for the Origo Mundi, the play I’ll be primarily discussing today: God and divine authority are located at the east-facing top of the circle in Heaven, David and secular authority are located at the bottom of the circle in the west, Satan and Hell occupy the northern edge of the circle to your left. The audience possibly sat or stood in the middle of the playing area as seen in this twenty-first century staging of the Origo at the surviving plen in St. Just:

Wish I could have been present for this!

The stage plans for the Passio and the Resurrectio make it clear that the basic east-west axis of divine and secular authority was maintained across all three days of the sequence, with the other sedes changing as necessary to suit the needs of the specific show.

Shifting our attention to the text of the Ordinalia plays—and specifically to the first play of the sequence, the Origo Mundi—gets us closer to today’s topic of medieval plants. The Origo is a series of Old Testament narratives thematically linked via Christ-centered typology: we begin with Adam (the Old Man whose fall necessitates Christ’s incarnation), then Abel (the murdered shepherd), then Noah (whose wooden ark anticipates the Cross), then Isaac (the willing sacrifice), then Moses (the giver of the Old Law that Christ will supersede with the New), then David (Christ’s kingly forebear), and finally Solomon (who builds the Temple that is both the Body of Christ à la John 2:18-22 and the type of the Church as a corporate body).

The one apparent anomaly in this list of patriarchs is Adam’s third son Seth, who features in the plot of the play between the Abel and Noah episodes. Aside from a brief appearance in the Chester Harrowing of Hell, this is Seth’s only appearance in extant insular medieval drama. His presence here signals that we are not only in the presence of Christian apocrypha, but a very specific strain at that: the Legend of the Wood of the Cross, the origin story behind the Crucifixion’s silent partner. The Origo Mundi is more or less a straightforward adaptation of the standard legend: in pain on his deathbed, Adam begs his son Seth to bring back the oil of mercy from Eden. Seth is not allowed into Paradise, but the cherubin on duty grants him three peeks inside the gate where he sees first the withered Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then a hellish serpent in the tree, and finally the swaddled Christ-child in the upper branches. The cherubin gives Seth three seeds from the tree and tells him to plant them in dead Adam’s mouth. When Moses subsequently journeys into the desert, he discovers that three wooded rods have sprouted from the grave as a sign of the Trinity:

Adam makes for good fertilizer in this branch version
of the Legend (from the Hoursof Catherine of Cleves)

Moses takes up the rods and carries them as far as the borders of the Promised Land, performing miracles with them along the way. Before he dies, he has the rods replanted on Mount Tabor, where David is directed by Gabriel to find them and honor them. David does this, bringing the rods back to Jerusalem where they grow into a mighty tree.

This is the tree under which David writes the Psalter as penance for his sin with Bathsheba, and it is this tree (and only this tree) which is judged to be sufficient to serve as the main roof beam for Solomon’s Temple. When the carpenters try to cut the tree to size, however, it changes shape three times, thwarting its incorporation into the fabric of the Temple. Solomon has it placed within the Temple in a honored spot; Maximilla, a young maiden accidentally sits on the tree, causing her robes to catch fire. She calls out to Christ to extinguish the flames, serving as both a prophet of his coming and as the first Christian martyr: the bishop first orders her stoned to death for her violation of the Old Law, and then he orders that the tree be cast into the Pool of Bethsaida. This punishment backfires: the tree spends its days blessing the waters and healing the sick. The Origo Mundi closes with the bishop’s servants carrying the tree to its new punishment as a bridge over the stream of Cedron. While the tree will make one more appearance in the Passio Domini as Christ’s Cross, its legendary history is more or less over at this point: seedling of the tree that brought humanity death, it has grown to become the tree that brings humanity salvation and life eternal. As Ambrose puts it, “mors per arborem, vita per cruces.”

The lignum vitae meets tree diagram
in the Howard Psalter (ca. 1310-20)

Robert Longsworth and Jane Bakere have both noted how the Legend of the Wood of the Cross provides the patriarchal typologies of the Origo Mundi with a unifying narrative frame. To repurpose the words of Solomon’s First Carpenter, the play, like the Temple, needs “a firm support or else the whole thing will be weak.” As the tree grows, the play comes together. Even when it’s not on stage, its ligneous presence is felt: Noah’s ark is made from “oak timbers,” after all, and Isaac carries “a bundle of firewood” up the mountain to seeming death. It’s thus no surprise that Bakere “paradoxically” identifies “the inanimate wood of the cross” as “the most powerful character in Origo Mundi.”

Coming at the Ordinalia from the perspective of critical plant studies, I would tend to concur with her assessment. However, I want to take issue with Bakere’s use of “paradoxically” and “inanimate.” The belief that plants are inanimate, insensate beings, that it’s an illogical paradox for them to possess agency on or off-stage—this is the zoocentrism Matthew Hall decries in Plants as Persons, the plant blindness called out by James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler and countered by the scientists of the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior. The typology informing the Legend of the Wood of the Cross (and thus the Origo Mundi) is more than mere metaphor: the tree is an actor, a vital participant in the multispecies assemblage enacted within the circular boundary of the plen. The Ordinalia enact a medieval natureculture, a fusion of physis (related to Greek phutón or “plant”) and tekne that treats the corpus Christi as hybrid zoophyte, a site where fleshly beings of all sorts come together in divine hypostasis.

We see the tree’s status as moral agent from the moment of its first appearance in the Origo Mundi: convinced by the serpent’s blandishments, Eve is willing to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the Cornish play develops this standard bible drama scene in a startling way, refusing to elide the physical process whereby sin enters creation. Eve peevishly tells the serpent; “If I’m going to reach the branches, you’ll have to bend them to the ground.” Not only does this line stress the tree’s arboreal materiality, its specific form of embodiment, but it also reveals the plant’s unwillingness to violate God’s commandment, its agential resistance to Eve’s disobedient act.

The tree once again behaves as tree when Moses encounters it in its incarnation as a set of sapling-esque rods. After Moses brings the rods into his tent in anticipation of Solomon’s placement of the beam into the Temple, Aaron notes that “These rods are holy since they yield so sweet a savor. It’s my belief that such a perfume could never rise from all the plants of the world in flower.” Typologically, the rods take the place of Christ in this speech: Jesus is the King of Man, and the rods are elevated above all other plants. Indeed, they have the same healing power that Christ will subsequently display in the Passio Domini: they serve as antidotes to the poisons of serpents and toads, and they cure the blind and the lame.

But the restorative power signaled by the rods’ perfume is also perfectly in line with their nature as vegetable bodies. We know that plants use a variety of volatile organic compounds or VOCs to attract pollinators and fend off herbivores; we also know that these VOCs are a means of communication between the different parts of the plant, other plants of the same species, and even plants of different species (a kind of chemical eavesdropping). The sweet savor of the blessed rods functions similarly: in its ability both to ward off predation by diabolical devourers and to attract the faithful pollinators who will spread the good news of the Flower of Jesse, this perfume of “exceeding grace” becomes a VSC or volatile spiritual compound.

As the Origo Mundi draws to a close, the tree becomes an even more unruly actant. Unable to decide where to plant the rods, David has them left “at rest in some verdant spot” under the guard of his Butler and Messenger. In a sequence that will be revisited in the Resurrectio Domini’s account of the dormant Christ’s rising from the tomb despite the watch kept upon him, the rods likewise elude the boastful sentries to “put down their roots into the earth,” where they join “together to make one.” Upon seeing the now full-grown tree, David remarks that “it is the Father himself who has planted them,” providing the scene with an incarnational quality reminiscent of Piers Plowman’s “plante of pees” and its heavy descent into the earth. David’s words reinforce our sense that the tree operates according to a nonhuman logic; it enacts the divine will humanity abandoned in Eden, a point stressed when the First Carpenter encounters the plant and can think only of its use value, its status as standing-reserve: “My God, what a beautiful tree for rafters! Big, well-rounded butt and a nicely tapered trunk, and from the top and branches I can cut me first-rate stuff like laths and corbels.

Of course, when he and his fellow carpenters attempt to transform the living tree into dead timber, their efforts are in vain. The Second Carpenter may vow that “the timber will come out neither longer nor shorter than my markings in any direction,” but this is short-sighted human presumption. First the tree proves too short for use as the Temple’s center-beam, then too long, and finally too short again. The carpenters announce to Solomon that “this particular timber is a miracle-worker,” an animate being “unhampered,” in Bakere’s words, “by the wayward desires of man”—a theological point, to be sure, but also an ecological one. Humans may cut down trees, but any woodworker can tell you the price in frustration one pays for literally going against the grain.

This is exactly what happens at the end of the Origo Mundi in the Maximilla episode. The tree begins by taking a page from the Burning Bush’s book, igniting Maximilla’s clothes as punishment for her absent-minded disrespect. It then vexes the Bishop, whose role in the play is to represent the Old Law, to serve as an anti-Judaic proxy for Solomon (a salutary reminder that the happily hybrid natureculture on display in medieval English drama is simultaneously an exclusionary natureculture that defines Jews as unnatural monstrosities). The Bishop cannot tolerate an evangelizing tree (insofar as the words its flames elicit from Maximilla’s mouth are prophetic anticipations of the New Law), and so he demands that “every inch of it” be thrown “into the pool of Bethsaida, an appropriately filthy resting place for a troublemaker.” As mentioned earlier, the tree engages in arboreal judo, transforming its disgrace into yet another opportunity for grace: a Messenger reports to the Bishop that “your disposal of the tree has accomplished nothing except to place you in a bad light … the tree has been healing the sick.” The very last action of the drama depicts the Bishop’s back-up humiliation plan: we watch as Gebal and Amalek, his Beckettesque henchmen, set out to Cedron with the tree in hand. But the play ends in mid-journey, leaving them in dendritic purgatory: “It’s not wonder I’m blue,” Gebal complains, “toting this log here, there and everywhere and nothing in it for us, not a thing. So we keep on carrying it, confound you, until our arms and legs turned to led, and we’re clean worn out.”

Although I could go on to discuss the moment in the Passio Domini where the tree bodily fuses with the crucified Christ, realizing on earth Seth’s vision of paradise, I want to close with this image of an unending Via Arborosa. The genius of the Origo Mundi for me lies in its continual emphasis on the resistant materiality of the Wood of the Cross, its radical insistence on the physicality of its radicles. While the tree is continuously entangled with humanity, repeatedly subjected to the vicissitudes of typological supersession, its matter is never ultimately superseded, never completely reduced to metaphor. Nothing else in medieval English drama comes close to the Ordinalia’s exploration of vegetable life, not even the Radix Jesse who briefly speaks during the N-Town plays. In the Origo Mundi’s careful tracing of the Wood’s history, its long-lived transcendence of human mortality, we see the lives of plants in plain view. There are no secrets here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

UBC Medieval Workshop 2014: Vegetal Prostheses and Corpus Christi in Early English Drama

On 7 November 2014, I had the privilege of taking part in the University of British Columbia's 42nd annual Medieval Workshop. Organized by Vin Nardizzi and his Oecologies collaborators, the workshop focused (unsurprisingly) on "Medieval and Renaissance Oecologies." My paper was part of the wonderful "Hedges" session, chaired by Eve Preus; my co-speakers were Katie Davison and Claire Duncan. Thanks are also due to Joshua Eyler, whose 11 May 2014 Kalamazoo paper on "The View from Zacchaeus's Sycamore: Perspectives on Disability in the Medieval English Biblical Plays" inspired this talk, and to Jonathan Hsy, who walked me through Disability Studies 101.

And, yes, I did wear my own vegetal prosthesis behind one ear while speaking:

[I opened with an abbreviated overview of my book project on vegetal bodies in early English drama; since a version of this has appeared on the blog before, I'm cutting it and beginning instead with the new material.]

My talk today builds on The Play of the Sacrament's interest in processed, crafted plant matter (fragmented vegetable bodies instead of whole ones). I'm looking here at those plants which function as prosthetics for humans, vegetable compensations for human impairment. For example, there's the flowering wand from N-Town's Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the stick that simultaneously testifies to Joseph's age-imposed impotence (he must carry a rigid wand as a staff because his legs—and the genitals those legs euphemistically denote—don't function "normally"; he enters the play in a supine position: as his kinsman asks him, "What ys the case that ye lye here on this ground?") and to his spiritual potency (when the dead wand orgasmically flowers, we understand that Joseph is suitable to be Jesus's earthly father; the stick takes the place of the penis that, for the stake of Mary's virginity, cannot be allowed to function).

Similar prosthetics abound in the cycle plays. Noah's ark might count as one, a wooden supplement compensating for humanity's aquatic deficiencies: Noah and his family can't swim for forty days and forty nights, so God teaches them to build a wooden fish to do the swimming for them. But perhaps that example stretches the boundaries of the category "prosthetic." We could turn instead to the ubiquitous crutches used by the blind and lame beggars we encounter in the cycles' Ministry plays, to Caecus, the man blind since birth who figures in both the Chester Glovers' play of The Blind Chelidonian and Lazarus and the York Skinners' Entry into Jerusalem, and to Claudus, the lame man who also appears in the Skinners' play.

While Caecus's staff is never explicitly mentioned in the play-texts (he gets around in Chester with the help of a Puer and in York with the assistance of a charitable Pauper—human prosthetics?), iconography would seem to mandate that he carry some form of wooden support. Above is a bas-de-page illustration from folio 218v of the Smithfield Decretals: even though the blind man in this image has a human helper similar to those assisting the plays' Caecus, he nonetheless bears a staff as well. As for the Skinners' Claudus, the representative of those who cannot "welde ther lymmes withouten strife," he does have a prosthetic called out in the script: Jesus commands him to "ryse, and caste the cruccys good space / Her in the felde." In all of these examples, "dead" wood counters human impairment: the hierarchy of human over plant is seemingly maintained (even if the human is dangerously dependent on the plant prior to Christ's intervention). But it's interesting to note that Claudus describes his healing in terms of the non-human: "For I was halte, both kyme and lame, / And I suffered tene and sorrowes inowe. / Ay-lastand lord, loued be thi name, / I am als light as birde on howe." Tekne gives way to physis here; Claudus likens himself to an animal on a living tree, replicates the dependency of his disabled days but this time with the quick branch of the tree replacing the dead branch of the crutch. We're back with Joseph and his quick wand here, the staff or crutch that nonetheless miraculously flowers.

We're also with another pair of impaired humans augmented by living plant matter: Zacchaeus and his sycamore tree (seen above in an historiated initial "D" from a twelfth-century German manuscript) and Chris and his cross. Zacchaeus is the easy case of this duo: his impairment in the Skinners' Entry into Jerusalem combines elements of both Caecus and Claudus. He cannot see Christ enter Jerusalem because, as he notes, "I am lawe, and of men high / Full is the gate." His vision is impaired even as his soul is impaired by his status as "prince ... of publicans." At the same time, his correct desire to look on Christ grants him upright stature identical to that of the healed Claudus. In place of "rise, and caste the cruccys good space / Her in the felde," we have Zacchaeus's vow "Therfore yone tre I will go too / And in it clyme." Zacchaeus does not cast his wooden prosthetic away (he can't: it's a living tree, rooted in the earth). But physical healing is not the point in this scene anyway. Instead, it's a scene of spiritual healing, the sort that counts the most. When Zacchaeus publicly courts humiliation from the crowd ("I lette noght for this thrang, / Her to say sone / Me schamys with synne") and makes restitution to all the poor people he has "begylyd" through usury by giving away "Halue my god," his heart grows three sizes that day (so to speak). He "falls" from the tree (an action ripe with typological echoes of Eden) only to "rise" to Heaven.

All of these instances fit perfectly into the "religious model" of disability studies outlined by Edward Wheatley, the approach to medieval disability that focuses on impairments as signs and products of human sin, as opportunities for the manifestation of God's power and thus for the conversion of onlookers, the correction of the broader spiritual impairment imposed on humanity by original sin. (I'm very aware of the internecine struggle within disability studies over terminology, definitions, and models, so consider my use of Wheatley's term here as sufficiently "hedged" about.) This is paradigmatically so in the case of Chester's Caecus: the restoration of his sight is paired with Christ's resurrection of Lazarus, the divine victory over the greatest of human impairments—death. The healing scene is also part and parcel of a play deeply invested in a thematics of light/darkness, sight/blindness, openness/concealment; Caecus's physical enlightenment follows his spiritual illumination in choosing to pursue Christ's miraculous assistance.

At the same time, the scene is linked to the bodily imperatives at the heart of the Corpus Christi feast's fusion of the mystical body of the Church and the body politic of Chester. Prior to his healing, Caecus is a stranger (in the medieval legal sense of the term) to the civic franchise enjoyed by his neighbors. As his parents note to the dubious Pharisees, Caecus "blynd was borne" and thus "could never bye nor sell"—a line I've linked elsewhere to Peter Travis's obversation that "To be a foreigner and to be physically incomplete were similar conditions of existence." Disability was apparently grounds for denial of apprenticeship (the Coventry Weavers' 1452-53 ordinances specify that entry to the guild is only possible if the applicant possesses "all his ryght lymes") and thus denial of the freedom of the city and full citizenship. After his healing, Caecus speaks of honoring Christ "with heart free," an indication that he is now able to participate fully in both the corpus Christi of the Eucharist/Church and the corporation of Chester.

Yet there's still that pesky, ineradicable non-human element lurking in all of these cases: Caecus's self-comparison to a bird, Zacchaeus's apostrophe to the living tree ("A, nobill tree, thou secomoure, / I blisse hym that the on the erthe broght"), and, typologically anticipated by Zacchaeus's willingness to climb "the tree of silly fruit" (Augustine's symbolically rich but etymologically inaccurate translation of Greek sykomoros into Latin), the Cross of Christ. The York Shermen's play of The Road to Cavalry repeatedly characterizes the Cross as a prosthetic designed "To bere this cursed knave" to humiliation and death. Through the Incarnation, Christ mimetically takes on the impairments and infirmities of sinful humanity—he becomes disabled. In his Passion, the height of his experience of mortal embodiment, he needs the support of the wooden Cross to act, to carry out his victory over disability and death. Like Zacchaeus, he must climb the tree of silly fruit, the tree of human folly.

And, just like Zacchaeus's "nobill" sycamore and Joseph's flowering wand, the Cross is anything but dead wood. (As we seen in the above page from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, it was customary to depict the Cross as green, i.e., living, wood.) This is where the playwrights' and spectators' familiarity with the widespread Legend of the Wood of the Cross comes into play. They would know that the Cross was born from three seeds of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the instrument of humanity's damnation. They would know that, planted in dead Adam's mouth by his son Seth, these seeds would sprout into a mighty, three-stemmed tree, a Trinitarian tree that Moses would uproot and bear with him, still living, throughout the entire Exodus, healing the sick and the infirm with its sweet odors—a tree that David would transplant to his palace so that he might one day sit under it and penitently write the Psalms. The people of York would also know that Solomon had his father's tree cut down to serve as a beam for the ceiling of the Temple, that—and this is crucial—the tree would resist this human appropriation, changing its shape and size repeatedly so that it never fit the spot intended for it by Solomon. The tree had its own agenda, its own agency. Finally, the citizens would know how the tree suffered its own anticipatory version of Christ's Passion, how it was tossed into a lake to drown and then shamed by being used as a footbridge for men and animals.

The Shermen's play alludes to all of this "history" when the Third Soldier enters with the Cross and tells everyone that he's had it made from wood "that laye ouere the lake— / Men called it the Kyngis Tree," a reference backward to David and Solomon but also forward to Christ. We also have the soldiers' insistence that the Cross has been "boorede, / Full euen at ilke an ende," an all-too-human attempt to control the wooden flesh (pith) of the Cross that will apparently be undone in the following play, the Pinners' Crucifixion. There the soldiers discover that the borings have not been made properly, that the measurements were apparently wrong. I've argued in other conference presentations that the soldiers' initial efforts were not incorrect, that we in fact have here a reenactment of the Cross's Temple hijinks, its alteration of its dimensions to thwart human attempts at control, attempts to sideline the divine will. (Christ must suffer fully to redeem Creation, so the Cross acts in support of that agenda, forcing the soldiers to make do with ropes and hurt Jesus even more severely.)

The Cross thus epitomizes the early English drama motif of the wood that acts contrary to expected human wisdom (the common sense or worldly ideology that old men are impotent, that adults shouldn't climb trees or give away half of their riches to paupers, that dead matter can be shaped and controlled by human artistry). The non-human participates in the production of human community, but in ways that go against the grain of the audience's quotidian expectations. This is the literal vision imparted in the plays by the Via Dolorosa sections: the Cross will bear Christ, will serve as his non-human prosthetic. But first Christ must bear the Cross, must serve as its human prosthetic.

Before the Passion, wood carries humans: in arks, as crutches and staves. During and after the Passion (and even in Isaac's typological preenactment of Christ's sacrifice), humans carry wood. We see this at the end of the Chester Cooks' play, their Harrowing of Hell. There the archangel Michael is leading the biblical patriarchs (including Seth, Chester's most explicit allusion to the Legend of the Wood of the Cross) out of Hell and into Paradise. As Adam and Eve and the others reverse the Fall and return home to Eden, they encounter a stranger: Dismas, the good thief of Luke 23:39-43, who comes on stage with a cross on his back—what he calls "a tokeninge ... to Michaell angell for to bringe, / that I might have entree." As a term from law, entree signifies "The taking possession of lands or tenements by entering the same." The play's word choice thus echoes its source in The Stanzaic Life of Christ where Dismas refers to his cruciform warrant from Christ. We can see how the plant-centered Legend of the Wood of the Cross serves the civic ideology at the heart of Corpus Christi here, how the Cross is a prosthetic enabling Dismas to achieve the freedom of Christ's city, the New Jerusalem. But, given the Cross's legendary history, it's also worth noting that Dismas's entree to Paradise is simultaneously the tree's much-delayed return to its roots. At long last, the tree can cast aside its (human) crutches and rise, bearing the fruit of salvation in its restored branches.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Medieval Ecocriticisms -- call for papers

Collection to be edited by Heide Estes
Amsterdam University Press

This collection of essays seeks to include a wide variety of papers from the perspectives of time, discipline, and approaches to ecocriticism. Ideally, the collection as a whole will provide numerous ways in to the topic of both ecocriticism and medieval studies, from perspectives including Object-Oriented Ontology, Deep Ecology, Critical Animal studies, Ecofeminism, and others; disciplines ranging across literature, history, art, theology, archaeology, architecture; and across time scales and geographic areas as wide as possible (within the general parameters of the European middle ages).

Papers that draw connections, implicit or explicit, between contemporary environmental issues and medieval texts and/or artifacts, are welcome.

The tentative timetable for editing and production of the book would be:

Submission of title, abstract, anticipated length of paper (in words): March 31, 2015
Submission of papers for volume: July 31, 2015
My review of papers complete: October 15, 2015
Revised papers submitted: January 15, 2016
Volume submitted to AUP: January 30, 2016
Peer-review completed: April/June 2016
Definitive manuscript submitted, incorporating PR revisions: September/October 2016
Publication date: late spring or summer 2017

Please send indications of interest as soon as possible to:
hestes [at] monmouth [dot] edu

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.