angelic castration dreams

June 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm (Uncategorized)

Since my dissertation is ranging over absolutely impossible historical breadth, I feel like I’m reading somewhat randomly these days. But it has its rewards:

CXXVII.
Caro. Carnis eciam temptacione Sancti quandoque vexantur.
Heraclides tellis, in ‘Libro Paradisi,’ how on̛ a tyme a holie monk̘ þat hight Helyas, þat was a virtuos man̛ & had grete petie & mercye of wommen̛, had vndernethe his gouernance in a monasterie CCC wommen̛. And when̛ he had contynued in þis occupacion̛ ij yere, and was bod of xxxti or xlti yere age, sodanlie he was attempyd̛ with his flessℏ, and onone as he felid̛ þis, he went oute of his monasterie ij dayes in-to wyldernes, & made hys prayer in þis maner of wyse; ” Diuine deus meus, et c̛. Lord̛, I beseke þe owder to remefe þis temptacion̛ from̛ me, or els sla me!” So at evyn̛ sodanlie he feƚƚ opon̛ a slepe, & hym̛ thoght þer come vnto hym̛ iij angels þat sayd̛; “Why went þou furtℏ oute of þe monasterie of þies wommen̛?” And he ansswerd̛ & said̛, for he was ferd̛ þat owder he sulde noy þaim, or þai hym̛. And þai sayd̛ þai suld̛ delyver hym̛ of þis drede, and bad hym̛ go home & take charge of þaim agayn̛. And he grawntyd̛ þerto & made þaim ane athe at he sulde do so. And þai layd̛ hym̛ down̛, & one of þaim held̛ his handis & a-noder his fete, & þe thrid̛ with a rasur cutt away bothe his balok-stonys, not at it was done, bod as hym̛ thoght it was done; and þan̛ þai askyd̛ hym̛ if he was any better, & if he was any bettyr þan̛ he was befor̛. And he ansswerd agayn̛ & sayd̛; “I vnderstand̛ þat a hevie burdyn̛ is taken̛ fro me, and þerfor̛ I trow þat I am̛ delyverd̛ of þat at I was fuƚƚ ferd̛ for.” And with-in v dayes he went agayn̛ in-to his monasterie, & liffid̛ þerin afterward̛ xlti yere. And as holie fadurs says, fro thens forward sucℏ a thoght come nevur after in his mynde. [1]

I just sent out my Chretien de Troyes article for review last Wednesday, in which I lament, as I seem to do in a lot of my work these days, that angels don’t get the attention they deserve from readers of medieval literature. Critical work on monstrosity has demonstrated that literary portrayals of monsters, marvels, and the supernatural change in response to cultural pressures and contexts. The angelic body, like the monstrous body, is a cultural body, [2] but medieval angels are so ubiquitous as to evade critical attention, seeming largely indistinguishable as characters with existence or agency apart from their role as God’s messengers. Furthermore, contemporary culture has so domesticated them that the Renaissance cherub and the long-tressed guardian angel stand at the forefront of the cultural imagination. Such disembodied beings of non-desiring grace seem to stand in polar opposition to their more appetitive, more hyperbolically-embodied, more interesting and thus more thoroughly studied monstrous counterparts. [3] Angels’ canonical histories tend to color their literary reception in overwhelmingly secular literary analyses, and studies of medieval angels often focus on their importance to medieval philosophy at the expense of examining their roles in literature and folklore. [4] Contemporary predispositions can blind us to the roles they play in medieval homiletic, folkloric, apocryphal, and literary traditions.

The role of angel-as-virginal-exemplar and/or sustainer-of-beleaguered-virgins has been noticed, of course, and so linking angels to resistance of sexual temptation isn’t particularly new here. Angels as razor-wielding bollocks-hackers, however, is. Somebody has recalled one of my library books so I need to finish taking notes on it this afternoon, so castrating angels are going to have to wait, but I hope to return to them soon. The non-fallen but destroying angels have always interested me more than the ones who come to hang out with saints while they’re being persecuted. But here we have benevolent angels performing (imaginary or symbolic) elective surgery on a monk, literally as a cure for his fear. Very interesting.

[1] Alphabet of tales : an English 15th century translation of from the Alphabetum narrationum of Etienne de Besançon, from Additional MS. 25,719 of the British Museum, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, pp 88-89.
[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), 4.
[3] Fallen angels are the exception of course, and have been studied a great deal; however, this tends to produce an implicit understanding that angels who exhibit personality or agency do so by virtue of their being fallen, or that doing so results in their fall.
[4] Contrast, for instance, Peter Marshall and Alexandra Walsham, eds., Angels in the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), which examines angels in everyday life and belief in later literature, prayer books, and homilies, and Isabella Iribarren and Martin Lenz, eds., Angels in Medieval Philosophical Inquiry: Their Function and Significance (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), which examines competing scholastic opinions on angelic being in terms which were unlikely to engage the medieval layperson.

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