mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli

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Dabo Vobis Terram Fluentem Lacte et Melle. (32)

Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture & Literature by Scott Lightsey.

Sly Olympias,
loved by kings, gods & dragons,
mother to monsters.

Well this certainly was tough going in places. I wasn't an English major in undergrad, so I missed out on a lot of the typical abuses that literature studies provides-- don't worry, anthropology had its share-- & thus never had to read, like the whole of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Which makes it troubling when Lightsey drops a couple of paragraphs of the original texts into the work; my brain can handle a sentence or two, can puzzle it out, but any more than that & I just don't have the endurance! It becomes a glacial slog, where it takes me ten seconds to figure out "manslawtre" means manslaughter. Not that "manslaughter" makes all that more sense as a spelling, now that I look at it. A "gh" in there? Okay, whatever language. Chaucer is some fairly modern Middle English, too; the dudes that start dropping thorns (þ), eths (ð) & yogh's (ȝ) & I'm just throwing up my hands; thorns are easy, since a "th" fricative could deserve its own letter, but the rest of the Old English letters are a mystery to me, so I have to refer back to Wikipedia & write up a cheatsheet. Beyond that, this isn't a book about automata & other wunderkammer fare, but rather a book about the literature that is about the mirabilia. In other words, it is less Edison's Eve & more a book dissecting the Medieval equivalents to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Literary criticism! That means there are the occasional parts where the litcrit goes off the rails-- "resisting the violence of highly structured systems of verbal classification" & "...Donna Haraway's material-semiotic actors, & the entities inhabiting the networks envisioned in Grossberg's spatial-materialist ontology..." indeed (16, 23).

I ended up quite enjoying it, once I got out from under the cloud of orthography & the fifty-cent words of the introduction. Like Excrement in the Late Middle Ages, this book examines the world we've inherited in histories & stories, but rather than focusing on the relation between the profane & the mundane, Manmade Marvels focuses on the relationship between "monsters, marvels & miracles," which really does sum of the spread (3). The literature dwells heavily on whether a particular piece is magical, miraculous, diabolical...or "just" the work of man. That later category however is fundamentally split between the genius of human works & the hubris of humanity, using technology to supplement themselves, in a post-Eden fallen body (13). In the sources examined the automata only maintain a sense of being a marvel when their cause is unknown; once the engine & mechanisms are reveled, it ceases to be an object of wonder (79, 80). This is the counterpoint to something I talk about with Jenny frequently, something that came up more recently in Kraken: what makes a monster a monster. Once you reveal naturalistic origins for a thing, does that demystify it, moving a creature from "monster" to "animal"? Is a kraken not a monster if you know it is a giant squid? Is the Old Man of the Woods diminished once you call him an orangutan?

(Girart d'Amiens, "Meliacin" [58].)

I found the discussion of the coronation of Richard II at the hands of the mechanical angel to be one of the better chapters (27). I don't have a relationship with Piers Plowman, but that was neither here nor there, since it is largely used to provide exegesis on the historical sources. The act of wonder as a replacement for military defense, of magnificence as rulership, for fashion & fancy parties as economic brinksmanship like the Soviet Union & the United State's space race-- well, that is a huge facet of the political philosophy framing my Oubliette campaigns, particularly the second & third (31-33). Chaucer's dissection of techne & alchemy is next, & he is critical in the most paradoxical ways. In the "clock versus cock" of the Nun's Priest's Talen we have a dispute of nature versus artifice, with conflicting layers of irony...but in writing such a detailed takedown, Chaucer reveals himself to be just as embedded in the proto-scientific tradition of citing sources as his satirical chicken is pretending to be (90). The gifts of the Squire's Tale-- a teleporting brass horse, a telepathic mirror, a ring that lets you talk to birds & a fearsome sword that can heal its own wounds-- are similarly used as a vehicle to critique the cognoscenti & the sin of curiosity (78). The final capstone in the book is a discussion of idolatry in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, & it is the chapter that most inspires me to go read the original. I don't have a lot to say about it other than finding two pieces of imagery really vivid. One is the seeds given to Seth at the Gates of Eden, which he plants in the mouth of Adam when they bury him, & grow to the wood that formed Moses' staff, which is David's staff, & then the wood of the cross Jesus hung on (157). Clever; I like to think that the seeds are from the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. The Old Man of the Mountain-- Mandeville's Hashshashin king-- living in a clockwork simulacrum of Paradise is bloody brilliant, for one (152). Mandeville's account uses this as a sort of debunking of the Old Man, & of the wonderworkers of the Middle Ages, by extension; craft & vanity as spiritual deception. Actually, now that I think about it, both the current campaign of Oubliette & the first campaign are in part about the division between mirabilia & miracula, between wonder & magic. Alchemy & occultism, invention & necromancy.

(Vincentius Bellovacensis, "Speculum Historiale" [118]. It took me forever to find this picture.)

For me the best part of the book was the chapter on "Monstrous Body Politic(s)," because I was previously completely unaware of Romantic literature's portrayal of Alexander the Great. I'm steeped in the Neo-Classical tradition, I guess; I picture Alexander the Great as a golden demigod, a genius with terrible rages, you know? Sweeping across the Known World with his phalanxes. The Medieval tradition of Alexander the Great was one of a hybrid creature, a monster, a sometimes beautiful beast. Mismatched eyes are the standard, whether black & gold, green & black, black & blue grey or red & grey. He's David Bowie? Actually, if David Bowie was a reincarnated Alexander the Great that would explain a lot. The mismatched eyes are the standard, but he's also portrayed with tusks, with a mane, with a roar like a lion. His eyes devour, consuming what the look-upon, basilisk-like (115-117, 122, 123). His father is said to not be Phillip of Macedon but the wizard Nectanabus-- or rather, the dragon Nectanabus, in the form of a warlock (117-120). The discussion of Alexander is framed as one of prosthetics-- cyborg theory in a discussion of the literature of the Middle Ages (125)? Don't mind if I do! he chains griffons to a chariot to fly to the vault of heaven, he builds a crystal sphere to explore the depths of the ocean, using technology to fundamentally increase the scope of his vision (126, 127). He is the heir to Cain the technologist (126). That gives him the same heritage as the monster Grendel, an ambiguous ǣglǣca himself, with his own monstrous parentage & lurking in the same text as a dragon.
Tags: books, haiku, lightsey, new middle ages

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