Purposeful Idleness

notes and essays and other knick-knacks




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They stood looking and calibrated with hooks

the tea and coffee and parsley and an orient sun

blew over them and cooled them,

and they remained and laughed together,

in darkness protesting.

They watched shadows weep from their footsteps

onto folds of skinship

and shuffled, smartly, into the overwhelming dusk,

where blind ships would blindly sink

and suck down the drops of labor

to digest in other darkness,

darkness of not-knowing: the dappled ocean

the last hard thing before a prancing sunrise

and home. 





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On Reading Psalm 1

Blessed be the man who steps out in winter,

            body to bear the crackle-wind,

            mutters he the cold way to what needs doing;

the door for fixing, the wall mending.

The while winter’s man beats, tumbles, trims,

makes do with shovel and sweat;

ripe and always weary,

slips caramels between breaths,

Sleeps through summer, chewing still air

and watching gnats in twilight nip;

thinking again of nippy wind

and the hard earth to come,

We others dawdle desires and dream together

ambitious ghosts,

clock-watchers all and worried;

stand-still sorrows stretching for the summer pace. 





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Smocks hollow and hung

guard a tight-wound romanesque

of rosemary, spilt and sprung

on our shabby sawhorse desk

awhile you wait mostly naked on threshold

shod in charcoal and sweat

and I, putting up steel-cold

swords on the mantlepiece, for their threat

watch you and not what I’m up to

till with split fingers I a-wailing

for thy bothered bosom come to you

and you send me out, hay-baling

in the night, because its absurd

and you nuzzle tea and grin

and know I’m looking for a word

while I work, to undo my sin.





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(Tick Tock) Time is cursed, yet we watch him go

By longing the long walk to lengthen still.

Meanwhile his cousin, distances to show,

Lacks mass and so lacking mocks our will

To touch and make our love’s last transgression,

And brief, against his shuddering deep.

Each kiss is so a body’s confession

Against its own absence, just as sleep

Is confessed by blinking and swollen eyes

And red, perhaps vainly pronouncing too

A passion, or sadness at memories,

For their passing, no less sad now than true.

By time, it seems, we wax; by time we wane;

By time we sin; by time, forgiveness gain.



The Poetics of Narrative in La Folie Tristan

The medieval literary predilection for challenging the adequacy of written signs to access, identify, or contain “truth” is well documented: both Eugene Vance, in Mervelous Signals, and Umberto Eco in The Limits of Interpretation describe the relationship of pre-scholastic forms of interpretation to language as presupposing a fruitful “arbitrariness of the vernacular sign” which produces the semiotic landscape of “artistic play” evident in the literary output of high medieval vernacular culture.[1] “The medieval metaphysical symbol is neither epiphany nor revelation of a truth concealed under the cloak of myth;” claims Eco, rather “Symbolism (in an Augustinian context) must make rationally conceivable the inadequacy of our reason and of our language.”[2] Vance explains how this “conceivable inadequacy” figures as constitutive of the transgressive pleasures of vernacular textuality in the twelfth century trouvére lyric and succinctly demonstrates that this phenomenon extends over the whole of the century’s vernacular culture.[3]

            This “cultural awareness” that “bondage to the carnal signifier and to the law of the letter is the soul’s death” expands, within the Anglo-Norman Romance tradition (though not exclusively), to articulate an additional suspicion of verbal narrative as meaningfully expressive of identity.[4]  Rarely is this suspicion better articulated than in the twelfth Anglo-Norman La Folie Tristan, a “story of stories” containing, most importantly, a depiction of a series of narratives told by Tristan to Ysolt in an effort to persuade her to believe that Tristan is himself. Ultimately, these “narrative instrumentalities” fail.[5] Since they form a summary of well-known Tristan narratives, their suspect effectuality at identifying Tristan to his lover articulates a secondary, critical suspicion of the romance-narrative’s effectuality at identifying “truth” or “chivalry” to the reader of Romance.

The mechanism of their failure is thus critical: Just as the trouvére lyric eroticized the “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” by expressing the “curious but subtle relationship of redundancy between non-sense in poetic language and self-thwarting libidinal desire,” La Folie Tristan poeticizes the inadequacy of conventional romance by expressing a corresponding relationship of redundancy between the failure of spoken narrative to reveal identity and lovers condemned to separation.[6] Vernacular narratives therefore become as any outward signs in the Augustinian framework: lineaments of desire doomed to separate the individual from his “true” self and conventions derived from our imperfection rather than traditions directing us to God. “He (God) is not contradictory in Himself. Contradictoriness belongs to our discourses about Him and arises from our imperfect knowledge of Him.”[7] Doomed to wholly ungratified desire from the beginning, Tristan’s narratives are undermined by the indices of his altered appearance. Ysolt’s desirous and extramarital love is demonstrated to respond ultimately to Tristan’s “appearing” to be himself, not on the truth of that self as such, which cannot be demonstrated by any conventional narrative within the text anyway.

The fragmentary La Folie Tristan narrative operates in three distinct parts, each demanding exegesis as it speaks to the text’s meditation on the limitations of its own textuality and narrativity: First, Tristan’s “disarmament”, wherein he puts on the outward appearance of a fool, shunning all of the conventional social symbols which identify knighthood as such within Romance; second, Tristan’s almost meta-textual litany of his own narratives, the most substantial of the poem’s portions and a discourse that is hyper-personal within the context of the poem and hyper-public within the broader social context of the poem’s reception; and finally, the uneasy resolution, where despite the failure even of “tokens” at convincing Ysolt of her lover’s identity, his self-hood is restored as he wipes away the deceitful outward signs by which he penetrated King Mark’s court.

The “honorific calculus” at work in a good knight’s “going incognito” as a fool has been effectively treated in J. A. Burrow’s article “The Uses of Incognito”, and demands no explication here: suffice it to say that the “scorn and ridicule” undergone by a knight disguised as a fool “contribute not only to his love-sufferings (in the dynamics of exchange which underpin courtly love) but also, in the end, to his ‘pris’. It is as if… the receiving of underserved scorn has the same effect as the refusal to receive deserved praise.”[8] However, he finds the text he treats to be “conspicuous among English romances for its hospitality toward chivalric values, and for its relative reluctance to invoke more general moral ideas.”[9] The same cannot be said of La Folie Tristan. Here Tristan’s “love-sufferings” predominate as a motive. “Miserable, dejected, sad, and downcast,” the poem opens, “Tristran dwelt in his land… He suspected everyone and hid his mind from them, fearing betrayal.”[10] Already the poem identifies his motive as escape rather than achievement, and whatever “glory is left to accumulate undiminished” by his disguise must draw upon the interpretive faculties of the reader for acknowledgement at the story’s end.[11] For Tristan, and the poet, the disguise trope engages in the tragic poetics of identity rather than any honorific calculus:


He kept his thoughts so quiet that he said nothing to anyone; he was wise, for disclosing secrets beforehand often brings great harm. No misfortune, I believe, will ever befall the man who thus hides, and will not reveal, his thoughts. Telling and disclosing secrets is often the cause of many disasters. People suffer from their own thoughtlessness.  (122)



Secrets, which imply an inner self at odds with the apparent, here form the key to unlocking Tristan’s disguise. Hidden thoughts produce a hidden identity- disclosure jeopardizes that identity and appearance must change for its protection. This escape from disclosure also activates an escape from life, indeed, from Tristan’s Tristan-ness:


Death, then, was certain, since he had lost his love, his joy, since he had lost Ysolt, the queen. He wished to die, desired to die, but only so long as she knew he was dying for love of her, for if she knew it, he would at least die more easily. (121)



Life being a problem (without Ysolt), Tristan puts on the trappings of a new life, effectively bringing death to the old. We must be careful not to express this jeopardized concept of self as operatively internal. As Caroline Walker Bynum suggests, “If the religious writing, the religious practice, and the religious orders of the twelfth century are characterized by a new concern for the ‘inner man,’ it is because of a new concern for the group, for types and examples, for the ‘outer man.’”[12] Wherever, in La Folie Tristan, an “internal individual” is suggested, that individual is expressed by a vocabulary of externals. Indeed, in the end we see Tristan’s visible “outer man” finally conformed to the speaking “inner man”, but that speaking inner man had deceived Ysolt just as effectively as the herb which turns his skin dark.

Which man, then, speaks to Ysolt? Tristan’s narratives form a catalogue of sign-identity structures, each recalling a token or moment to which Tristan attaches his self, defined, as it is, by its relation to Ysolt. Each account engages one person or object which “means” the memory which in turn “means” Tristan. However, “it would be mad and deceitful to recognize him as Tristran, when she saw, thought and believed he was not Tristran but another.” The validation of these sign structures as unifying the intent of their performance with their meaning depends, therefore, on Ysolt, for whom belief must precede recognition. That belief, in turn, depends not on the truth of the content of those signs but on their effective coherence with the signs surrounding them:


Ysolt said: ‘Tokens will convince me. Have you the ring? Show it to me.’ He drew out the ring and gave it her. Ysolt took it and looked at it; then she burst out weeping, she wrung her hands, she was distraught. ‘Alas for the day I was born!’ she said, ‘I’ve finally lost my love, for I know well that no other man would have this ring were he alive. Alas! I will never be comforted.’ (139)



Though the ring must be Tristan’s, its effect as evidence depends ultimately on Tristan being the one to produce it. Without the visual sign system which means ‘Tristan” surrounding it, the “meaning” of the ring is lost in a realm of fractured possibility. Each narrative possesses no intrinsic meaning which can be correlated independently to Tristan’s self, rather, their meanings depend on a relational system of sign structures rooted in the apparent signs of Tristan-ness which would lead Ysolt to “see, think, and believe” that Tristan stands before her.

But what does the text’s internal, relational semiotics suggest about the functionality of textual meaning? Twelfth century Romances had already developed a distinctive internal vocabulary of reference; as Melissa furrow demonstrates, “stories of Tristram and Isolde provoked specific readings that light up for us the variety of ways in which romances more generally were read morally and remembered as exemplary.”[13] A wide range of “different, contentious” ways of reading the well-known story appear simultaneously to illustrate that variety as an unstable proliferation, subject to and representative of the variation in theological and philosophical perspectives produced by the twelfth-century renaissance. Indeed, it seems no interpretation stands as the correct one; rather, “in the disparate emotional responses it produces,” the Tristram and Isolde narrative “is not different from the genre (of romance) as a whole.”[14] La Folie Tristan illustrates and engages with this disparity, relying upon the reader’s familiarity with the controversial Tristram narrative to develop ambiguities already at work more generally in romance as specific themes. 

So we are asked to perceive the Tristan narratives similarly, in a sense, to Ysolt. Their meaning is ultimately developed relationally: rather than offering a consistent and coherent moral interpretive structure, dependent on the propriety of the text and the reader, romances in general, and specifically the Tristan and Ysolt story, operate in a flexible matrix of possible meanings. By cataloguing Tristan narratives, La Folie Tristan opens up these possibilities, engaging, ultimately, with their failure at summoning a “reality” independent of those factors -curiously absent from the text- which posit that reality as contiguous with our own.

Those factors, or signs of the text’s engagement with the social or cultural context of its production, are thereby rendered suspect within our reading. Stephen knight posits this social-critical aspect of romance a rare and redeeming characteristic for a genre generally bereft of such sophistication, but such elements feature prominently in a wider range of Romances than he allows.[15] “Rather,” as Furrow argues, “twelfth century religious writing and behaviour show a great concern with how groups are formed and differentiated from each other, how roles are defined and evaluated, how behaviour is conformed to models.”[16] It would seem, in fact, typical for the literary output of a culture so interested in its own social construction to speak to that construction, and, for the reasons outlined above, La Folie Tristan forms just one example.

But how does La Folie Tristan speak to its social context? What does it say? The trope of washing at the poem’s conclusion implies a vaguely moral aim, and indeed, “Sanctity,” in a twelfth century context, “is finally reformation of the total man, and it can be gained by imitation of the sanctity of others, which is accessible to us exactly because it is outer as well as inner.”[17] By this logic, the emphasis on conforming Tristan’s outward appearance to his inner self justifies and affirms the Christian emphasis on faith expressed visually in the trappings of priesthood, church architecture, symbolic statuary and iconography. Certainly, the faithful reader could find a plethora of textual examples of the problems associated with the social expression of the internal phenomenon of love and devotion: the entire problem of the story revolves around love which is true, though unconsummated and disruptive of the socio-political hierarchy of King Mark’s court. A Christian ethos does not exclude the interpretive possibilities of an interpretive mode based on “a profound disillusionment with the possibilities of a noble life.”[18] Rather, as wealth of examples (including the entire phenomenon of mendicant devotion) demonstrate, even an orthodox Christianity could produce such a reading.

However, it is also clear that the Tristan and Isolde archetype may be and was conceived as “depicting deeply immoral actions,” a “thoroughly secular” text in a thoroughly ecclesiastical age.[19] Tristan’s continuing adultery is, by any measure, sinful. The flexibility with which medieval writers engaged Tristan’s transgression necessitates a further, all-encompassing description: Tristan operates as an outcast, holy or sinful, who, by abandoning his proper social stature, grants the reader access to an outsider’s perspectives on the social mores of the typical medieval court and, through the text’s particular operations, the narratives of romance which surround that court.[20] These mores and narratives are, ultimately, neither affirmed nor critiqued. Rather, they form a structure whose dissolution produces a sophisticated and valuable –to the modern reader- meditation on the role of “identity” in the social norms of court life.

The poetics of sign and identity at work in La Folie Tristan therefore demonstrate the interpretive flexibility operative in Anglo-Norman literature. Romance narratives seem, at last, to follow the pattern at work in the general symbolic modes of pre-scholastic literary culture: the “conceivable inadequacy” of language systems spreads upward through more complex language artefacts, casting over chivalric tales a shadow of that disdain for “carnal signifiers” detectable elsewhere, but breaching also the very structural composition of narratives in general. In La Folie Tristan, “arbitrariness of conventional verbal signs” spreads to include a more general arbitrariness of conventional narrative modes whose truth-as the text argues- depends on the coherence of whatever social signifiers which surround it, not the inherent value of those social signifiers.












Works Cited

Aers, David. Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, & History. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986. Print.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California, 1982. Print.

Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.

Furrow, Melissa M. Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009. Print.

Haidu, Peter. “Text, Pretextuality, and Myth in the Folie Tristan D’Oxford,” in Modern Language Notes Vol. 88 No. 4 (May, 1973): 712-717. Print.

Meale, Carol M. Readings in Medieval English Romance. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 1994. Print.

Vance, Eugene. Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1986. Print.

Weiss, Judith, and Malcolm Andrew. “Folie Tristan.” The Birth of Romance: An Anthology : Four Twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Romances. London: J.M. Dent, 1992. N. pag. Print.

Weiss, Judith, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Print.

[1] Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 86.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 10.

[3] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.

[4] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 86.

[5] Peter Haidu, “Text, Pretextuality, and Myth in the Folie Tristan D’Oxford,” Modern Language Notes 88 (1973),713.

[6] Vance, Mervelous Signals, 87.

[7] Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, 10.

[8] J. A. Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 32.

[9] Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 33.

[10] “Folie Tristan” in The Birth of Romance: An Anthology, trans. Judith Weiss (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1992), 121

[11] Burrow, “The Uses of Incognito: Ipomadon A,” 30.

[12] Caroline Waler Bynum, “Did The Twelfth Century Discover The Individual?” in Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (London: University of California Press, 1982), 85.

[13] Melissa Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde” in Expectations of Romance: The Reception of Genre in Medieval England, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009), 144.

[14] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 175-176.

[15] Stephen Knight, “The Social Function of Romance” in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology and History, ed. David Aers (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986), 99-122.

[16] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde”, 144.

[17] Bynum, “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?”, 102.

[18]  Arlyn Diamond, “Unhappy Endings: Failed Love/Failed Faith in Late Romances” in Readings in Medieval English Romance, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 66.

[19] Furrow, “The Example of Tristram and Isolde,” 143-144.

[20] Morgan Dickson, “Verbal and Visual Disguise: Society and Identity in Some Twelfth-Century Texts” in Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 53.

Dr. Bickerstaff's Unearthly Wonderblog

So it turns out that Peter Jackson is further expanding the already expanded two film version of The Hobbit into three films.  It’s somewhat unclear just what this hypothetical third film will entail – one idea floating around is that it’ll use more material from the Lord Of The Rings Appendices to bridge the two series, making The Hobbit basically a prequel trilogy.  Still, it does seem that if Jackson wants to continue working on film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, there is already a vast corpus of writings to build on that does not require making stuff up outside of Tolkien’s writings.

That corpus is, of course, The Silmarillion, the vast collection of stories and legends from the First Age, a mythology upon which the characters of the Lord Of The Rings (set in the Third Age of Middle Earth) look back.

Naturally, due to its immense…

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Apropos of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus

Given the recent interest in the Grateful Dead (my favorite band) on display in the New Yorker article and the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus, I thought it might be worthwhile to set down my thoughts, if only for future reference. Having never seen a Grateful Dead show myself (alas: Jerry died when I was 4), that might be an exercise in futility. It would seem that the recorded legacy of the Grateful Dead, extensive as it is, pales in comparison to “the thing itself”, real and in the flesh. My Dad saw the Dead a number of times. One of my professors at University followed them from show to show. My access to their musical adventures is removed; an academic and artistic interest at best and a neurotic obsession at worst. 

More than that, I have no great love for the culture of the Dead. As I mature through university, I find my tastes wandering farther and farther away from the tie-dye wearing, shower-avoiding idealism of the Dead’s fanbase. Gorging myself on poetry of the high-serious vein and devotional art, what room could be left in me for the acid-drenched insanity of of a 68 That’s It for the Other One or the plaintive simplicity of Workingman’s Dead? Evidently, quite a lot.

That, I think, would be my first observation about the Dead’s achievement. A world unto itself, the Dead’s musical landscape evades easy categorization. Remember that professor who toured with them? Theology. My dad? Attorney. His buddy, also a deadhead, works in computer science. Sure I met a barefoot guy on the street in Atlanta once -I bummed him a cig and we got to talking about the jamband scene- who seemed to have wandered the paths of Grateful Dead pseudo-spirituality a little too far, but I’d posit that nowadays those types are the exception rather than the rule. Any way you look at it, the Dead’s appeal slices through social and vocational strati like a knife.

The reason is simple: variety. Sure, Check Berry plays Chuck Berry better than the Dead. John Coltrane’s extended improvisations put Dark Star to shame. Like Workingman’s Dead? Listen to some real Bluegrass for heaven’s sake. I could go on: ragtime idioms, country, hard rock, prog, folk ballads, reggae, psychedelia and more come to mind. But where else can you find all of most of these things all wrapped up in one three (or four… or more…) hour show? More than that, where else can you find any such diversity expressed without compromising the musical identity of the players? The Dead always sound just entirely like the Dead (except when Brent is on that damned synth…), regardless of the peculiar characteristics of the song they might be performing. And, furthermore, in their 30 year career they hardly EVER repeated a setlist tune-for-tune from one night to the next. To top it all off, Jerry, Phil, Bobby, and Billy weren’t in the business of memorizing arrangements and recreating the magic (HA!) of their studio performances. These guys manufactured their music anew -to one extent or another- nightly, though with enough consistency between performances that each year puts on display a unique “group identity”, i.e., ’70 is folksy, ’74 experimental, ’77 smooth and slick. Very few artists work with such flexibility (Young and Dylan come to mind). Almost none have a book of recordings so thick.

That means two things, mainly. First, The Dead’s fans are not like any other fans. They listen to more music from one group more closely than any other I can recall. Imagine if George Lucas had made a movie out of every Star Wars-universe novel ever written. Such a thing would consume lives, and I’m fairly sure the Grateful Dead do. I see in this a very clear expression of one significant impulse in cultural activity, one which we inherit from the Middle Ages and earlier. People like more. We want more and more culture to interpret. Marvel Comic fans, Lost fans, Wine fanatics and gearheads display the same basic phenomenon when they interpret, reinterpret, unpack, unfold, watch, read, listen, watch again, read again and listen again to the same or different content time and again. Whether the “depth” they see is purposefully built into those texts (join me in imagining wine and cars as texts) is (almost entirely) irrelevant. The “correctness” of the interpretations is (mostly) irrelevant (for now.). What matters is the fact that there’s always more cross-referencing, analysis, tasting, studying, and assessment that needs doing. These “hobbies” are often construed as meaningless time-wasters, even by their devotees, simple “leisure” activities that allow us to distract ourselves from the stress and hustle of working life. But I’d argue such hobbies, generating the discourse and invoking the close study that they do, should occupy the status of “culture” far more than most of what I saw at the Whitney Biennial last year. Eco defines the poetic effect as “the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.” That’s suspiciously close to how the Dead spoke about Dark Star. Compare a version from 68 to a version from 74 and you’ll see why.

So the difference between the Dead and many of these other hobby-culture cults is that varied interpretive actions are (purposefully) built into the structure of the Dead’s craft. They developed the “Open Work” (another Eco concept thankyouverymuch Umberto) of Rock music, opening the boundaries of their art to each other and expanding the act of musical creation to occupy the very moment of its presentation. Sure, Jazz did this first, but the Dead changed the game by dismissing the formal limitations of genre. Those limitations may have been productive by allowing jazz to develop improvised melodies over sophisticated harmonic structures, but I’d posit that as much is gained as lost, since the listener no longer need acquaint himself with the nuances of the jazz vocabulary to appreciate the “momentary” value of Dead performances. It doesn’t alienate its listener. No one could confuse the Dead for elevator music (except in the 80’s. good grief.).

Additionally, abandoning the limits of a singular vocabulary of genre opened the door to a historical growth over time no other band has ever replicated (cool off phish phans). As I said, the Dead in 1970 are NOT like the dead in 1977… and yet they are. In destroying those limits, the dead made their own personalities, which, like all personalities, changed while they stayed the same, the genre-content of their opus. Listening to the Dead’s music as it unfolds is like listening to a conversation that, convening for a few nights every week, takes three decades, held between several very interesting, very personable, and very smart people. The personalities, warts and all, of those people are on display, modified by the lens of their craft.

So if you have a deadhead friend, try to understand. Its not all nonsense; they’re studying something with far more gusto, perspective, analysis, and depth than most University students can be bothered to demonstrate. The same goes for any fanboy. This stuff is culture, whether you like it or not, and, whether you like it or not, in a couple hundred years someone might look back and try to understand it. At least they’ll have something clear to say for themselves.


Three Quotes

“There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”

-James Joyce

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

-William Faulkner

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”

-T. S. Eliot

Thoughts forthcoming.

Gawain was glad to begin those hall-games,

But should the end turn heavy, hold no wonder;

For though when cheeks turn red, men make merry,

Eager years edge always on to new ends,

The first seldom forming forth to its finish.

So the yule passed away to the young year,

Each season spun into each;

After Christmas comes crabbed lent,

To test the fattened flesh with frail food,

Before earth’s weather wrestles with winter,

Cold clings down, clouds uplifting,

Warm spring rains unveiling in sheer sheets,

And falling on fair grounds, flowers there to show.

The Creative Environment in Florence, 1200-1500

The significance into perpetuity of late medieval Florentine cultural activity had been codified by art historians as early as the publication of Vasari’s Lives of the Painters in 1550. Even as 16th century Italians stepped blinking into the light of early modernity, they turned back to canonize their forbears as “rising spirits, aided by some quality in the air of certain places” who “so far purged themselves of this crude (Gothic and high medieval) style that in 1250 Heaven took compassion on the fine minds that the Tuscan soil was producing every day, and directed them to the original forms”.[1] We are now, of course, less inclined to attribute tenebrous historical phenomenon to the grace of heaven, Tuscan soil, or “some quality in the air”.

Presuming that the salient position allotted these Florentines by their successors, as well as more recent art historical discourse, sufficiently distinguishes their work from that of their peers to beg our particular attention, what social and economic forces gave rise to the creative environment, if such a thing existed, in which these privileged few were to flourish? What, if anything, distinguishes that atmosphere from concurrent hotbeds of late medieval cultural activity, such as Bruges? It may be that art historians can only fall back upon the very genius of these inspired agents to account for their peculiarity, but by bracketing exceptional individuals and investigating the historical context of their activity we may be equipped to identify Late Medieval (or, perhaps, Early Renaissance) Florence as a distinctively creative environment, a society wholly engaged in the production of its now-sacrosanct artistic and intellectual artifacts rather than the backdrop for a sudden and fortuitous boom of individual talents.

Two primary factors stand out as potential catalysts for creative growth. First, Sam Cohn’s claim that from the Black Death we see “a new culture of ‘fame and glory’ spring forth from the West’s most monumental mortality[2]” identifies the plague as a springboard for cultural endeavors and intellectual advancement among its survivors. Finally, the concentration of wealth in Italian super-companies, the first of their kind, provided the massed capital, or proto-capital, for architectural projects on a new scale and engaged this wealth with a merchant class eager to display their access to comforts, sacred and profane, formerly reserved for the nobility. Each of these elements relies on transformative processes taking decades and centuries rather than the neater historical curiosities of discreet and momentous occasions, forcing our attention to the shifting sands of economic interplay and mass psychology.       

The Black Death induced the first of these shifts: the gradual focusing and elaboration of devotional investments in 14th and 15th century Tuscany. “Testators of the last decades of the fourteenth century,” argues Cohn, “began to focus their bequests on a few causes and increasingly commissioned objects to recall their names and memories in both the terrestrial and celestial spheres.[3]” Cohn may divorce this phenomenon from a “Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance” based on his insistence that “it was a ‘fame and glory’ not of the individual but of the family, and, in particular, a male version of it,[4]” but a ‘fame and glory’ of the individual are not essential to the forces at work in a ‘Creative Environment’.

Instead, Florentine testators’ interest in securing their family legacy highlights the more general phenomenon of a new post-plague concern about the security of memory after death. Boccaccio’s introduction to The Decameron describes the degradation of the solemnity of Christian funeral rights as funerals swell in abundance with the death toll, eventually developing into an infrastructural rather than religious problem.[5] Combining this account with Cohn’s statistics on wills and testaments impugns the sufficiency of the sacramental funeral for marking passage into death for plague-era Italians. In their place Florence turned to “funerary art ranging from monumental graves and frescoed vaults to ten-lire paintings placed above their remains[6]”.

The effects of the plague, however, stretch beyond a seller’s market in the visual arts. The repeated failure of Classical medical sources to subdue the spread of the plague led to their initial repudiation and ultimate replacement by the foundational building blocks of medical science.[7] The impacts of such a transformation, while only moderately successful in stemming the tide of plague deaths (for which human adaptation can probably receive more credit) are far-reaching. Here we see the ‘truth of authority’ attitude of the Middle Ages begin to be supplanted by the ‘truth of experience’ disposition of modernity- a key element in the broader cultural shifts waiting in the Renaissance.

            The groundwork of Florence’s creative environment, however, predates even the plague. The size and sophistication of “super-company” monetary activity had begun another fundamental shift in the fabric of Florentine cultural activity well before the plague would strike Tuscany. As the period immediately preceding plague-fall saw Florence’s Peruzzi family “consistently outnumbered” by the relative novelty of non-family shareholders in the makeup of the company which bore their name, we can presume that substantial experimentation and expansion had been taking place for generations.[8] Being, as it was, among the largest luxury cloth-producing regions of Europe in the Late Middle Ages,[9] Tuscany occupied a position of extraordinary economic significance even before its traders spread to more distant markets. As the profits of these markets increasingly coalesced into the deepening pockets of the super-companies, the vast wealth of Florentine merchants could afford them ever greater luxuries, illustrated here by Giovanni Villani’s account:


Beyond this, there was no citizen, Popolano or Grande, who had not built or was not building a large and rich estate in the countryside, with an expensive mansion and other buildings even better than those in the city. Each one of them was sinning in this respect, and they were considered mad for their inordinate expenditure.[10] 


            The families associated with these super-companies aspired to nobility.[11] The Commune’s political and military offices were littered with Peruzzi and Bardi businessmen, whose affiliations with the Guelf or Ghibelline parties would divide families: Arnoldo and Filippo Peruzzi, brothers, both built names as military organizers on opposite sides of the conflict that would tear Florence apart in the 1260’s.[12] Inter-family conflict also threatened Florentine peace,[13] but divisive partisan politics in Tuscany hides the underlying factor. These families were not, in fact, noble. They could not trace their claims to land as the power-holding families of France and England could. Their wealth had, at some point, been earned, probably in the market. Their relationship with wealth and power therefore distinguishes them from the ‘true’ nobility of Europe. Their business endeavors would often bring them into contact with such nobles, but they themselves would, by sumptuary laws and other devices of maintaining the medieval social order, only rarely breach that top echelon.

            Though the kings of France and England could hold their lineage above the heads of Italian super-companies, as well as their solidarity (the King was -most of the time- not part-owner of his crown), the monarchs of Europe in the Late Middle Ages were subject to Italian Merchants in one category alone: money. As Peter Spufford explains, “Some 80,000 rolls of cloth were produced each year in the 1330’s (in Florence), and according to Villani were worth no less than 1,200,000 gold florins. This was approximately equal to the combined annual incomes of the kings of England and of France.[14]” This mass of wealth available to the bourgeois merchants in Florence would combine with their insecurity about the origins of their family to produce a culture of conspicuous consumption, in which successful businessmen would be fain to be painted at the foot of the crucifix, or among the animals at Christ’s manger. This established them, throughout the Renaissance, as the financial backing of the Churches and Artworks which Art Historians study so closely now; it is possible that without the size and self-conscious character of Florentine wealth, this would not have been possible.

                    In an article arguing that Bruges was a Creative Environment in the Late Middle Ages, Wim Blockmans argued that in Italy, unlike Bruges, the development of a new “concept of training went along with the systematic reorientation of the style toward the imitation of classical models and the more sophisticated, self-conscious vision of the role of the artist.[15]” His notion of a “Creative Environment” then proceeds as an explanation of how art production in Bruges was maintained without the “self-conscious vision of the role of the artist”, i.e. as a community. I dispute this. It would seem to me that for a such a vision to arise, the social and economic factors, such as those I have outlined here, would need to favorably align into another, if more productive, Creative Environment. The Black Death and Super Companies produced these in Florence, but the factors are by no means stable. History would seem to produce a great variety of Creative Environments, their structure and composition as varied as the artworks they produce.

[1] Giorgio Vasari,  Lives of seventy of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects (1570), excerpted, Fordham

 University Internet Medieval Sourcebook http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/vasari/vasari-lives.html

(Accessed November 20, 2012)







[8] Edwin S. Hunt, The Medieval Super-Companies (Cambridge, 2002), 12

[9] Peter Spufford, Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 237

[10] Giovanni Villani, Florentine Chronicle (1300), excerpted, Fordham University Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/villani.html (Accessed November 20, 2012)

[11] Hunt, The Medieval Super-Companies,14

[12] Hunt, The Medieval Super Companies, 15

[13] Villani, Florentine Chronicle

[14] Spufford, Power and Profit, 237

[15] W.P. Blockmans, “The Creative Environment: Incentives to and functions of Bruges art production” in M.W. Ainsworth (ed.), Petrus Christus in Renaissance Bruges. An Interdisciplinary Approach, 11 – 20 (1995)


The Sacramental Vocabulary of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents an important lay perspective on the function of sacraments in the development and performance of spiritual and self-reflective identity in the late middle ages. The text identifies confession and mass as focal points in Gawain’s adventure, and its dependence on formal, ritualized devotional practices to articulate his heroic self in turn depends on the audience’s personal and intellectual engagement with a world ordered by the theology of the Church. The events of the text tempt, surprise, and redeem Gawain and its audience; our ability to engage critically with the sacramental underpinnings of Gawain’s adventure transforms him from a holy fool, subject to the machinations of villains and the mercy of God, into an active agent in his own salvation.

Four sacramental elements stand out. First, Gawain’s attendance of mass between his armoring and departure from Camelot resolves him, liturgically, to his fear of death and spurs him on to confront nature as a deadly and disruptive force. Second, his horseback lamentation and bequest to the Lord and Mary for a Christmas mass to attend in Fitt II seems to save him from a chaotic other-world of nature as wilderness. Third, each bedchamber scene in Fitt III is followed by Gawain’s prompt attendance of morning mass, seemingly to guard him against sexual transgression, and finally Gawain’s confession before the Green Knight and ultimate sacramental getaway offer a profound escape from death, securing the sacraments as fundamental to Gawain’s Augustinian realization of self. Many critics have noted that Gawain and the Audience stand between nature and culture, lost.[1] Moral virtue and self-reflection, as they are performed in formal confession and liturgy, guide our hero out.

In Fitt II, as Gawain is armed and made ready for adventure, we see Mass included as integral to his preparations. The arming sequence surrounding the mention forms a descriptive catalogue of meaning systems to which Gawain is, by osmosis, attached. The poet is, notably, less interested in the effect of the knight fully armed than the process by which the armor is applied:


Þenne set þay þe sabatounz vpon þe segge fotez,

His legez lapped in stel with luflych greuez,

With polaynez piched þerto, policed ful clene,

Aboute his knez knaged wyth knotez of golde;

Queme quyssewes þen, þat coyntlych closed

His thik þrawen þyȝez, with þwonges to tachched;

And syþen þe brawden bryné of bryȝt stel ryngez

Vmbeweued þat wyȝ vpon wlonk stuffe,

And wel bornyst brace vpon his boþe armes,



This formal relationship between body and armor is reflected in the “real” grief and “affected” joy of the court, whose reactions to Gawain’s departure involve more the fulfillment of the duties of friends than genuine expression of woe:


Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies

Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,

Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:

Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.



We see in both examples a disconnect between the description of ‘actual’, as in flesh and feeling, and the ‘presented’, as in armor and amusement, though the poet considers both descriptions necessary to each system. This dichotomy is further explored –and inverted- by the poet’s exegesis of Gawain’s shield, wherein the ‘presented’ sign, the pentagram, is real, while its ‘actual’ counterparts, the pentagram’s varied and lengthy meanings, exist only as allusion and suggestion:


Fyrst he watz funden fautlez in his fyue wyttez,

And efte fayled neuer þe freke in his fyue fyngres,

And alle his afyaunce vpon folde watz in þe fyue woundez

Þat Cryst kaȝt on þe croys, as þe crede tellez;

And quere-so-euer þys mon in melly watz stad,

His þro þoȝt watz in þat, þurȝ alle oþer þyngez,

Þat alle his forsnes he feng at þe fyue joyez

Þat þe hende heuen-quene had of hir chylde;



Religious images, notably without any of the exegesis or detail expressed above, consummate the armoring and presentation of the shield. In noting that Gawain, “So harnayst as he watz,” attends Mass before receiving his shield, the poet extends the device of ‘armoring’ to Gawain’s soul, completing the preparations. By doubling the pentagram with an image of the Virgin Mother on the inside of the shield, the poet performs the same comprehensive religious extension for Gawain’s heraldry. These images speak for themselves to the poem’s audience: here the exegesis of the Church and the depth of the audience’s dogmatic knowledge perform the work of explanation and description. The poet relies on their function as true ‘symbols’, and their meaning cannot be pinned within the confines of a profane text.      

With Gawain’s preparations done, he departs the safe and cultured world of Arthur’s court and ventures, somewhat aimlessly, through “contrayez straunge” where nature seems designed against him.[2] North Wales, Logres, and the Isles of Anglesey appear here so full of “wormez”, “wolues”, and “wodwos” as to constitute an anti-eden, a “dark forest of sin” akin to Dante’s. But if combat with mythical creatures seemed bad, it “wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors.” The passing seasons, expressed at the beginning of the Fitt as redeemed by the cycles of the church-year, turn against Gawain. Nothing, however, troubles him so much as missing Mass on Christmas, for which he prays,


 ‘I beseche þe, lorde,

And Mary, þat is myldest moder so dere,

Of sum herber þer heȝly I myȝt here masse,

Ande þy matynez to-morne, mekely I ask,

And þerto prestly I pray my pater and aue

and crede.’

He rode in his prayere,

And cryed for his mysdede,

He sayned hym in syþes sere,

And sayde ‘Cros Kryst me spede!’


Here we see Gawain’s piety buoy him; crying for misdeeds and begging Christ for speed, Gawain is directed to Haut-desert (and the plot of the story is propelled) before he crosses himself three times. His journey gives us a panoramic view of a world at odds with men, broken. It symbolically corresponds with Advent and Lent, and this consecration of natural and artistic time frames by reference to the organization of life cycles according to Church doctrine tends, in Gawain, to complicate the symbolic landscape. The flexibility of the poet’s devices in sanctifying the narrative demonstrates the flexibility of the religious ritual vocabulary with which his audience appears to have been familiar.

            That flexibility is perhaps most strained in Fitt III.  As Gawain’s obligations to feudal camaraderie, sexual affection, Christian piety, and self-preservation come into conflict, Mass and celebratory communion in the hall become stable points in an increasingly ambiguous moral landscape.  Opportunities for shame –failure to live up to the reputation of a knight of Arthur’s court- abound in the bedroom and the exchange of winnings, while the glories of combat or “appropriate” sexual release, usually at hand in medieval Romance, remain absent. The world, in Gawain, seems demonstrably ordered against the hero. Nature and culture appear to collide upon man as the “hidden punishments and secret tribulations that befall the sons of Adam” outlined in Augustine’s confessions.[3]  

            In the third fitt, those tribulations formulate as the parallel pursuits of hunting and flirting, all explored against a sacramental backdrop. Mass is mentioned 5 times in total in the third Fitt, being the first element in the ritual of the Lord’s hunt and Gawain’s first stop after his morning rendezvous. The poet takes care to mention each attendance of the morning ritual specifically: they seem to be a daily practice, no less significant than eating or drinking. It would not do, evidently, to tell us that our hero goes to mass every morning and leave it at that. The location of each sacrament in the course of the day becomes critical: The lord, whose adventures take place after his reception into the body of Christ, operates in a redeemed and ordered world, where man conquers beast and the community functions as one. Gawain, who is only accepted into the body of Christ after his ‘test’ each morning, remains in a state of moral suspension until he successfully negotiates the dilemma and may, in turn, receive the Eucharist. The most critical sacramental moment, however, seems to be Gawain’s formal confession after he receives the fated garter on the morning of the third day:



When ho watz gon, Sir Gawayn gerez hym sone,

Rises and riches hym in araye noble,

Lays vp þe luf-lace þe lady hym raȝt,

Hid hit ful holdely, þer he hit eft fonde.

Syþen cheuely to þe chapel choses he þe waye,

Preuély aproched to a prest, and prayed hym þere

Þat he wolde lyste his lyf and lern hym better

How his sawle schulde be saued when he schuld seye heþen.

Þere he schrof hym schyrly and schewed his mysdedez,

Of þe more and þe mynne, and merci besechez,

And of absolucioun he on þe segge calles;

And he asoyled hym surely and sette hym so clene

As domezday schulde haf ben diȝt on þe morn.


For Gawain, the acceptance of her gift -and close run with sexual transgression- has marked his “sawle”. Such a sin precludes him from participating in the Eucharist and necessitates the more formal confession. The language of the confession recalls that of Gawain’s horseback prayer from fitt II, but here we find it expanded. The presence of a confessor substantiates and focuses Gawain’s meditation on his ‘mysdedez’, but the language also implicates potential failure. Confession depends on the sinner’s honesty; by making explicit the success of the ritual, the poet assures the audience that the truth has been recounted in full. Here we locate the same dichotomy between real and affected that dominated the imagery of the arming sequence. In the succeeding passage, we see this theme developed further.

            Gawain’s sin, for the purposes of the poet, lies more in his failure to exchange the garter than in its reception. That makes Gawain’s actions at the final banquet pure deception; here he is symbolically cut off from the body of Christ. While the first arming sequence included attendance of Mass, in the rearming sequence of Fitt IV there is no mention of Gawain’s going to Mass. He remains “in sin” as he approaches the Green Knight.

            The first arming sequence established formal dichotomies of sign and signified with regards to armor and body, and speech and truth. These return in Gawain’s departure from Haut-Desert, as do the descriptions of seasonal cycles and the condition of nature from Fitt II. The speech of Gawain’s guide, like that of his friends at Camelot, deceives Gawain, though whereas the comely ladies of Camelot deferred their true feelings out of sympathy, the guide encourages submission to fear:


Forþy I say þe, as soþe as ȝe in sadel sitte,

Com ȝe þere, ȝe be kylled, may þe knyȝt rede,

Trawe ȝe me þat trwely, þaȝ ȝe had twenty lyues

to spende.


And then he lies, probably at Bertilak’s behest. The Green Knight is the Lord of Haut-Desert, not a man who would slay a monk or a “masseprest”. Gawain ignores him and the ‘truth’ of Gawain’s death is ultimately proven false. This distinction emphasizes the difference, for our medieval audience, between the condition of the world in a ‘state of sin’ and a ‘state of grace’. Gawain, departing Camelot, took courage from his friends and comrades, asking, “’Quat schuld I wonde?/ Of destinés derf and dere /What may mon do bot fonde?’” Departing Haut-Desert, he must bravely ignore the deceitful advice of his worldly companion, seeking truth for himself.

            The second armoring sequence extends the theme:

                                    Fyrst he clad hym in his cloþez þe colde for to were,

And syþen his oþer harnays, þat holdely watz keped,

Boþe his paunce and his platez, piked ful clene,

Þe ryngez rokked of þe roust of his riche bruny;

And al watz fresch as vpon fyrst, and he watz fayn þenne

to þonk;

He hade vpon vche pece,

Wypped ful wel and wlonk;



While the armoring sequence at Camelot emphasized the armor’s derivation from the form of the body, here the poet makes note of the armor’s cleanness and polish. Gawain appears proud and stern, a far cry from the bloodied, kneeling figure we shall find restored to honor later on. All systems of sign and signification established in the second Fitt appear in disarray in the fourth, particularly the time cycles of nature:


NOW neȝez þe Nw Ȝere, and þe nyȝt passez,

Þe day dryuez to þe derk, as Dryȝtyn biddez;

Bot wylde wederez of þe worlde wakned þeroute,

Clowdes kesten kenly þe colde to þe erþe,

Wyth nyȝe innoghe of þe norþe, þe naked to tene;

Þe snawe snitered ful snart, þat snayped þe wylde;


The harmony of man and beast described by the hunting sequence and the church-year passage is gone. Gawain world has come apart; his forty days in the desert continue.

            As the themes of the text turn against Gawain, his unconfessed deception waxes in our minds. When he is restored to good faith, and laughter, by Bertilak, we find sacramental language makes its way into the text once again:


Þou art confessed so clene, beknowen of þy mysses,

And hatz þe penaunce apert of þe poynt of myn egge,

I halde þe polysed of þat plyȝt, and pured as clene

As þou hadez neuer forfeted syþen þou watz fyrst borne;

And I gif þe, sir, þe gurdel þat is golde-hemmed,

For hit is grene as my goune.


Gawain’s safe escape involves the intervention of sacramental language and ritual, including kneeling, into the secular realm of chivalry. With this, the conceit of the text’s sacramentality reaches its apex, returning us to Augustine’s Confessions: “God of goodness, what causes man to be more delighted the salvation of a soul who is despaired of but is then liberated from great danger than if there has always been hope or if the danger has only been minor?”[4] Gawain has turned to Mass and Confession in search of “cleanness” several times over the course of the poem; when the fatal moment comes, his desperate recourse to the performative vocabulary of confession saves him. Even the colors of that moment ring with allusion to the church year: red blood, white snow, a green knight.

            Though sacrament forms only one of many thematic operations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it stands among the most alien of medieval cultural languages to the modern viewpoint. Tracing its subtleties through the text, we find Gawain’s crisis takes on new dimensions for the audience and gain an access point into the depth of the poem’s solutions.   The symbolic languages inherited from Confession and the Liturgy of the Eucharist enriche the work’s conceptual syntax, particularly for the development of Gawain’s character. Gawain seems more alive than many of his counterparts in similar romances; such language is partly why.  

[1] Riddy, 216

[2] Woods, 209

[3] Augustine, 147

[4] Augustine, 137