“The Student of Epistolarity’s Blog Response”

In the salutation of “The God of Love’s Letter,” Cupid wishes the recipient[s] “Health, Love, Intimacy” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). This is seemingly at odds with the opening of the exordium: “We make it publicly known that complaints . . . have been made before us” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). There is an immediate tension birthed by the proximity of the words “intimacy” and “publicly,” which mirrors the tension of the issues at hand. “Intimacy” belongs to a private sphere and one of the central concerns of the text is the collapsing of the boundaries of private (feminine) and public (masculine) which gives way to “intimacy” becoming a public affair, wherein it ceases to be intimate. What is curious is that de Pizan herself seems to transgress the accepted boundary between public and private as she is woman intent on engaging in a public debate and employing a private genre to address public concerns.

This early portion of the exordium is marked by reference to the state, courtly love, and honor – all gendered concepts relating to public relations. I wonder to what extent de Pizan must labor in her exordium not only to secure the good will of her audience, but also to establish her bona fides, i.e. is the adoption of the “clerkly” discourse a means for her not only engage critically with the public (read: male) literary debate, but also a means of establishing her right to be part of it in the first place? This concern for demonstrating a belonging to the masculine literary discourse community is perhaps evidenced in subsequent sections of the letter (Narratio? Do we get one?) by the classical, biblical and romantic literary references which are threaded throughout. Similarly, the martial metaphors including “throw[ing] down the gauntlet” and “captur[ing] a weakly fortified” perhaps function as a radical appropriation of the language of a masculine discourse to signal that she deserves a place within it.

It is curious that she employs the formal conceit of adopting the persona of Cupid to engage with her audience. Scholars of the Roman de la Rose – which she critiques – have argued that Jean de Meun’s allegorical characters function as cover for him to make claims that would otherwise have adverse repercussions – the dream vision genre helps in this regard as well. This formal conceit of deflecting ownership via adoption of a persona is in some ways echoed in the creation of an artificial commentary. As the editors point out, de Pizan produces the verse, gloss and allegory portions of “The Letter from Othea.” What is perhaps worth noting is that the author is attempting to create an artificial distance in the context of the commentary process, in which she mimics the practice of medieval authors commenting on ancient texts (de Pizan 30), but that this distancing is perhaps intended to create the illusion of objectivity, i.e. the formal conceit is meant to strengthen the arguments. Again, I wonder if the excess of allusions and references to literature and philosophy function as barrier removal for a female writer in this period. Similarly, I wonder if composing the verse and then providing commentary is meant to signal that she – as a woman – is more than capable of engaging in the work of not only one but three authors at the same time. 

In the spirit of feminist discourse, I will end with a series of questions rather than statements of fact. Feel free to engage with the above or what follows. How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” with the adoption of a persona? How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” and “pretending” and contemporary gender theory – is there a productive conversation to be had regarding de Pizan and “performativity?” Does the excess of references function as a sort of textual “drag.” In a public setting, is “intimacy” subsumed into politics? Derrida points out in The Politics of Friendship that the notion of a “private enemy” is nonsensical. Is the same true of a “public intimate?” What do we make of a public letter (this is unlike Ovid in that it is a literary appropriation of the genre which is in some ways functioning like actual letters)? Is de Pizan giving the object of her ire a taste of their own medicine by by having Cupid make the private – I’m assuming anonymous – complaints of individual women public?  I didn’t get to “The Letter on the Prison of Human Life” in this post, but what do we make of the public / private concerns of the letter, and the collapsing of these within the context of communication between women? Was anyone able to link these readings to the framework from Excommunication? See you all on Tuesday.


The Wanderer Illumination

I chose to illuminate the poem “The Wanderer” for this workshop, because it is a medieval poem, and illumination was a medieval practice. I must say, I felt somewhat cheesy for doing this once I realized that the class was working with more contemporary poetry for the most part. However, I am currently translating this poem for another seminar, and so I thought that this choice was apt. I hoped that illuminating the poem might reveal some aspect of it which strictly attending to language would not. The illumination also functions as a translation in its own right, i.e. in illuminating I was attempting to “bring across” some aspect of the poem, albeit for myself — although by illuminating a poem after reading it, one might always be acting in a hybrid reader / writer capacity. I chose a side-by-side translation of the poem, because I wanted to foreground the fact that it has been translated. Similarly, I wanted the illumination to intersect only with the modern translation, as a sort of nod to the fact that I can never get at the original, and will always come up short in my efforts in translation.

As I surveyed the various examples of illumination provided in class, I noticed that motifs of geometric patterns were common — particularly in the older examples. As the dominant images in this portion of the poem are metaphors for internality and the sea, I chose not to illuminate the poem with concrete imagery, such as a man in a boat. Additionally, I am not certain that the speaker in the poem is a man. In fact, part of me wants to leave that a mystery, although there could perhaps be linguistic features which indicate that it is indeed a male speaker. The purple, blue and green wave forms along the side of the piece are intended to reflect the sense of forward movement in the text, represent the dominant images of icy water, as well as, convey the alliterative stress rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The color palette was also supposed to reflect the cold imagery in the poem. The blueish green was intended to invoke the pervasive emotion of heart-sickness that runs throughout the poem.

I wanted the irregularity of the geometric shapes to reflect the irregularity of the stress patterns. The bits of yellow adorn the negative space within graphemes at the beginning of lines, as well as, the negative space within graphemes that form words regarding the internal state of the speaker such as: “spirit-chest”, “treasure-chamber”, “thoughts”, etc. Halla, who was kind enough to augment my initial illumination efforts, chose to adorn words such as “I” and “one” in blue to reflect the frozen state of the speaker in the poem. The first grapheme is intended to appear like the moon. Because the wave forms run down the side — rather than across — my hope is that the reader might reorient the page to view it as a image. If they did this, the flecks of yellow and blue might then appear as stars and precipitation respectively. The desire for the reader to reorient the page is bound up in the issue of translation.

The illumination activity has confirmed the relationship between image and graphemes for me. Although, if one accepts the post-structural definition of “text” as anything that can be read, then this is not a “relationship” per se — as they are not discreet units of meaning — but unity. There seems to be little to gain from thinking image and graphemes separately. An unforeseen consequence of the project is that medieval illumination practices feel more contemporary than modern print, insofar that in the digital age, hybrid texts are the norm. When one is reading digital native texts in the web 2.0 environment, “text” always means graphemes and images, whether it is the icons associated with the webpage or the task bar at the bottom of the screen. This has been on my mind the entire semester. Moving forward, I want to continue attempting to consider ways which considering medieval practices can inform how I interact with modern texts, and text making practices.

Illuminating Medieval Manuscripts: Historical Perspective, Material Process, and the Curious Case of Richard De Bury’s Bibliophilia

Please excuse any redundant information, infidelity to the discourse from class, or lack of style.

Professor Mueller began the class by foregrounding the dominant sentiments felt towards texts in the medieval period: distrust and excessive love (which gave way to fetishization). We then considered that because Richard De Bury was an aristocrat, he could write, hence his is the position that survives. Because peasants were illiterate, their voices do not. Professor Mueller then made reference to the issue of the oppressive potential of documentary culture — “undocumented immigrants” was the contemporary manifestation of this problem he offered as an example. In short, those who control document culture assert control over culture / politics in general.

The class then listened to an overview of the period which much of the reading for the class session was concerned with.

Medieval Period (500-1500)

Periodization is contested. While many agree that the fall of the Roman Empire inaugurates the medieval period, there is less consensus regarding when the period ends (see other scribe). Regardless, this period encompasses a time which saw the emergence of the codex, monasticism, Benedictine (Benedict 480-547) monastic reform (mentioned in The Canterbury Tales), the rise of Christianity, Latin as the sacred language of the bible (and the language of books more generally), missionary work, the Irish innovation of space between words, and vernacular languages.

The 7th century witnessed the rise of Islam, and in 710 the Islamic conquest of Spain.

The years between 1000-1300 are characterized by population growth, increased urbanization, economic boom, and the development of more sophisticated trading systems.

In 1180 the Universities of Oxford, Paris (you can’t forget Paris), and Bologna are founded. They trained students to make commentaries in texts, i.e. glossitory — which provided commentary on legal texts (which could assist in codifying law). During this time, the Pecia system was developed as a means of reducing errors in copied texts. The Pecia system divided up the various leaves of a text to scribes who would then copy them. Each scribe was associated with a symbol. In one manuscript we viewed, that of Accursius, we found that his commentary was more extensive than the law which it commented on, and in fact functioned like the law. According to Professor Mueller, some documents contained commentaries on commentaries on commentaries about legal texts (very meta).

Professor Mueller went on to note that university libraries emerged as repositories for books during the high middle ages.

Again, dating is wonky, because Petrarch is considered a “renaissance” author, while Chaucer is considered “medieval” — even though Chaucer was born long after Petrarch. Professor Mueller contests the narrative that Petrarch trained in formulaic Ciceronian rhetoric modeled on Cicero’s De Oratore, discovered letters from Cicero to friends which did not conform to this style, and subsequently embarked on a program of dissuading compositionists from using the “medieval style” which adhered to De Oratore. All of this indicates the problems of popular historical narratives.

Professor Mueller prefaced the next phase of class by asking: what does illumination add or take away from a manuscript? We then watched a video (available on the course wiki) which detailed the process of manufacturing parchment, quills and ink. Professor Mueller made reference to the Exeter Book, which includes a riddle about the making of a manuscript.

Professor Mueller again made reference to the potential for the oppression of document culture. He noted that as of the late medieval period, translating the bible into the vernacular was still not allowed (Wycliff and Lollards broke this rule). Professor Mueller pointed out that the Latin bible is in fact a translation of the original Aramaic and Greek. In short, the arbiters of document culture — the clergy — wanted to control the scripture, and in turn the populations understanding of it.

We then illuminated texts (Please refer to the handout for details on this process).

We ended class by discussing the Philobiblon by Richard de Bury. Professor Mueller offered that the text was often used in schools as students advanced to Latin prose texts. He also noted that the text preserves the rhythms of earlier medieval Latin. He went on to note that the text finds sympathy with ars dictanimis (the art of dictation) in that the prologue establishes ethos or the authority to speak on the part of the author, seeks to ingratiate itself to its audience, etc. We went on to discuss the first six sections of the text, and then concluded class.

With this task now completed, I think I need a drink.