The Wonders of the Thesis | Literature Review

The aim of my thesis is to create a queer critical perspective of Old Norse and Old English literature. While there have been queer approaches to both of these areas in the past, many have stayed within the frame of the homosexual/heterosexual and male/female binaries; my approach strives to dismantle and problematise both of these constraints on the queer critical approach to medieval literature. The general starting points I plan to begin with are translation, monster theory (including notions of the Other and liminality), feminist literary criticism, contemporary queer theory, and even some aspects of Postmodernism.

I will begin by grounding myself in current queer critical approaches and theories, such as Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s collection of essays Queering the Middle Ages or Richard E. Zeikowitz’s “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes”. I want to use these various perspectives to create my own working definition of what it means to be queer, and more specifically what it means to be queer in a medieval text. I will seek to expand this definition to go beyond the boundaries of a binary sexuality and gender system, and thus see how our perspective on certain episodes or characters in medieval texts change accordingly, if at all. This definition will of course largely be impacted by my knowledge of monster theory and feminist criticism; the most significant complementary piece being Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Her theories on the binary, and discussions on displacement and performativity will be essential when attempting to include transgender (binary and otherwise) identities into the mainstream queer approach.

One of the most important sources for my research is J.J. Cohen’s chapter “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” published in The Monster Theory Reader. Cohen describes a “set of breakable postulates in search of specific cultural moments” in this chapter (38). He notes the way monsters emerge from individual and collective anxieties, and can be used in a political way – such as the way in which the Nazis made ‘monsters’ of Jewish people in order to further their political agenda.  His discussion on the body of the monster in particular links directly to questions about transgender and/or intersex bodies. I want to use Cohen’s seven theses to examine the way in which queer and trans people have been made into the monstrous Other. Cohen asserts that monsters act as warnings and encourage people to act within the status quo; but for those who know they have been cast in the role of monster, it is the status quo/the place in which ‘heroes’ dwell that poses danger. I will use Cohen’s theses to uncover the perspective of the monster, that is, the queer or trans community. In a similar vein, I will be dismantling and problematising pieces such as Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf’” to demonstrate the inadequacies of labelling characteristics and behaviours as masculine or feminine. Some Postmodernist critical technique comes into play here, namely distrust of metanarratives, as outlined in Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism. Pieces like Acker’s begin to unravel at the seams once the delicate structures of the metanarrative in which it operates (the metanarrative being, in this case, a binary gender system) are torn down. Hutcheon’s work on Postmodernism and metanarratives will be an important tool in dismantling these binary structures. 

In terms of the Old Norse primary texts, I will be using Carolyne Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda. This translation is one with which I am intimately familiar from my undergrad, and Larrington’s other critical work on Old Norse literature both complements my research and signifies to me the perspective she had while translating the Edda. She employs the feminist literary critical approach of “reading against the grain”, which I believe also proves useful when examining texts from a queer perspective. Having looked closely at her word choice in some instances already, one can see gender being problematised in a way other translations may have obscured or made more palatable for a binary, cisgender audience. Thus Larrington’s translation will be vital for my research. In addition, I will be using Dr. Tom Birkett’s prose retelling of the Norse myths as an example of modern, prose adaptation of the texts. In a sort of contrast, I will be using both Fulk’s edition of the Beowulf manuscript, as well as Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem Beowulf. As with every translation, our interpretation of a text is tinged by the translator’s own experiences and biases; I am using multiple translations in an attempt for some kind of balance, as well as the opportunity for comparisons. Heaney’s word choices when translating sections on Grendel’s Mother, for example, have been criticised for having unnecessarily negative connotations.

Feminist literary critical techniques can also be used for a queer critical perspective; as I mentioned before, Carolyne Larrington uses the “reading against the grain” technique in her essay “What Does Woman Want?: Mær und munr in Skirnismal”. I wish to use her example and listen to the gaps and silences left by heteronormative and ciscentric perspectives which have dominated traditional academia. In a similar fashion, I want to examine other examples of feminist criticism in the Old English and Old Norse fields, including Mary Dockray-Miller’s “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf” and “Female Community in the Old English Judith” and Clare A. Lees’s “At a crossroads: Old English and feminist criticism”. These are critics I admire very much, but I believe feminist approaches can inadvertently become (ironically) andro-centric, and, in the case of Lees’s piece, intersectionality can be forgotten or fall to the wayside. I want to build on the arguments and observations made by these feminist critics, perhaps even problematise them, to reveal a more intersectional, dialectic, and possibly complicated view of gender in medieval texts and the world beyond.

By using these texts together for my thesis, I hope to rearrange them like stars into a new constellation, and change today’s queer critical perspective of medieval literature.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf.’” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 702–716. 

Birkett, Tom. The Norse Myths. Quercus, 2018.

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger, editors. Queering the Middle Ages. NED – New edition ed., vol. 27, University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006. 

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “MONSTER CULTURE (SEVEN THESES).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56. 

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf.” Women and Language, vol. 21, no. 2, 1998, pp. 31.

—.  “Female Community in the Old English Judith.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 70, no. 2, 1998, pp. 165-172.

Fulk, R.D., translator. The Beowulf Manuscript. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus, translator. Beowulf: A New Translation. Faber & Faber, 2000.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.

Larrington, Carolyne, translator. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2014.

—. “What Does Woman Want? Maer und munr in Skirnismal.” Alvissmal, vol. 1, 1992, pp. 3-16.

Self, Kathleen M. “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender.” Feminist Formations, vol. 26, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–172. 

Zeikowitz, Richard E. “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes.” College English, vol. 65, no. 1, Special Issue: Lesbian and Gay Studies/Queer Pedagogies, pp. 67-80.

Note: Featured Image: Hild, Thrud and Hløkk | 1895 | Lorenz Frølich | Taken from Wikipedia |Public Domain

ƿiðymbe, or “Against a Swarm of Bees”, CCCC MS 41

Part of an assignment I had over the Christmas break was to produce a critical edition of the marginal charm, “Against a Swarm of Bees”, found in the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge Manuscript 41. It is one of 12 surviving metrical charms in Old English, curiously living in the margins of the Old English Bede, under a short Latin prayer. If you’re interested in Old English marginalia, I recommend Patricia O’Connor’s research, as she tries to reframe the way we look at the Old English Bede by taking its marginal works into account!

Now, please sit back, relax, and enjoy my critical edition of the Bee Charm, including my own (wobbly) translation!

Gif by Punziella.

Introduction

The marginal Old English metrical charm, “Against a Swarm of Bees”, referred to often as the Bee Charm, can be found in the Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 41. The manuscript contains a translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, known more commonly as the Old English Bede. The Old English Bede “survives in five extant manuscripts, dating from the mid tenth and late eleventh century” (O’Connor, 152), yet CCCC MS 41 is of particular note due to the peculiar amount of marginal texts it contains, “including complete homilies, sequences of liturgical material and charms” (Birkett, 465). Aside from the Bee Charm, there are also “three charms to use in the event that goods or livestock are stolen, and a Journey Charm” (O’Connor, 154). The three charms which refer to theft are known collectively as the Cattle Theft Charms, and include Latin incantations that appeal to Christ, the rood of Christ, and different saints. The Journey Charmis the longest charm, and also appeals to Christ and the Apostles.

“Against a Swarm of Bees” uses a vernacular, that is, an Old English incantation, rather than a Latin one, and does not appeal to any Christian figures. It instead relies on the naturally magical properties of the earth; no divine figures or intervention appear to be required for this charm to work.

Traditionally, it is agreed that there are twelve extant metrical charms in Old English (Tornaghi, 439). Metrical charms “alternate prose and poetry”, often with a similar structure, whereby the instructions are written in prose, and the incantations in poetry (439); this rings true for the Bee Charm. Though twelve may not seem like many, the charms have a substantial range of use; from ‘For a Sudden Stitch’ to ‘For the Water-Elf Disease’, as well as, of course, wið ymbe, “Against a Swarm of Bees”.

Many of the metrical charms deal with curing disease, indicating the relationship between magic and medicine in Early Medieval England. This is, Tornaghi asserts, why charms are often included in texts that “deal with medicine”, such as the Lœceboc (440). We are prompted, then, to wonder why charms such as “Against a Swarm of Bees” are included in the marginalia of the Old English Bede, or even why a manuscript like CCCC MS 41 has such an extensive collection of texts in its margins in the first place. If medicinal charms find their way into the margins of medicinal texts, what does that tell us about the Bee Charm’s relationship with the Old English Bede?

University College Cork alumnus Patricia O’Connor’s research aims to “assert the possibility that these marginal texts may have been meant as intentional textual additions to the passages of the Old English Bede they are written beside” (152-153). She stresses that modern critics need to keep in mind that “Anglo-Saxon compilers may not have shared our present preoccupation to compartmentalise texts and perhaps possessed a different rationale for recording these seemingly disparate texts together alongside the Old English Bede” (157). Her research marks the first instance where CCCC MS 41 is read from the perspective that the Old English Bede and the marginalia are one comprehensive piece, so to speak. Setting both the main text and marginalia in a new context could unlock new layers and meanings to the texts, including the Bee Charm, instead of simply viewing it as a convenient place for the scribe to make note of a useful magic charm.

“Against a Swarm of Bees” is written on page 182 of the CCCC MS 41, in the outer margin, tucked beneath a short Latin prayer; the upper and bottom margins of this page remain untouched. There are instances elsewhere in CCCC MS 41 where the scribe utilises the full space of the margins, such as on p.196, where the Old English wisdom poem Solomon and Saturn “completely surround[s]” the main body of the text of the Old English Bede (O’Connor, 152). It is written in a different script to that of the Latin prayer; the ascenders and descenders of the Latin prayer are far more decorative and Gothic. It is thought that the Latin prayer was transcribed first, and the Bee Charm was written down later, in a dark brown ink (Bredehoft, 725). 

N. R. Ker asserts that all of the marginal content in CCCC MS 41 came from one hand, and dates it to the early to mid eleventh century, although the texts’ “size, layout, and colour of ink vary widely” (Bredehoft, 722). Subsequent studies of the manuscript have also accepted this argument (Birkett, 465). Bredehoft, in his essay “Filling the Margins of CCCC 41: Textual Space and a Developing Archive”, maps the shifts in the stages of the marginalia scribe’s process, and concludes that the first stage, in terms of content, consists “primarily of various kinds of charms, in both Old English and Latin” (731).  The main body of text is, however, written in a separate hand. It, too, has more decorative and dramatic ascenders and descenders, though they are softer and rounder than the script of the Latin prayer. “Against a Swarm of Bees”, when compared to both the main text and the Latin prayer, appears to have been written down in a more relaxed fashion. It is written entirely in miniscule, with few decorative ascenders or descenders. While there is clear lineation for the Latin prayer, which is evenly spaced and meticulously neat, the charm, a later addition, seems to have been transcribed with less fastidious care. It does appear to follow the lineation of the main text when possible; however the first two lines of the charm are sloped, and the space between these lines is larger than any other. It may be possible that this is due to the manuscript page warping over time. The scribe appears to have noticed this spacing error and as a result lines further down, such as “forweorp ofer greot”, become more squashed together. Bredehoft writes that the “switch from main-text ruling to narrow ruling suggests the scribe’s response to a realisation that widely-spaced text may be an inefficient use of vellum” (727-728).

That is not to say the charm is not neat, however. The scribe uses the Tironian et (⁊) when transcribing the Bee Charm, while for the Latin prayer they employ the use of the ampersand (&) instead. There is nothing to visually denote the difference between the instruction the charm gives, and the direct speech it includes for the reader to use. Instead there is simply a change from imperatives to first person singular forms of verbs, as well as the immediately preceding instruction, “ond cweð”. Tornaghi also points to the vague narrative voice as a reason for this lack of clarity in the charm. This made it difficult to translate at first, as the sudden switch from the imperative to the indicative mood can be jarring, especially when the author appears to enjoy playing with words.

Gif by Punziella. Find her on Patreon.

One may enjoy discovering, as I did, the pun on the Old English present, singular form of the verb ‘to be’, which appears as beo, and the nominative singular form of the noun ‘bee’, which also appears as beo. Whether this was purposeful or not, the confused meanings, or the blurring of meanings and intentions, does give the spell a transformative and mystical feel, if not a humorous one. The purpose of the spell is, after all, to prevent bees from swarming; to transform one thing into another, using your will, or ‘magic’.  This is, in part, why I decided to translate “funde ic hit” as ‘I wish for it’. The person who implements the charm is blurring their will with that of the swarm, and thus, in that moment, they are, but they are also the bee. After all, as Patricia O’Connor points out, the “word charm conjures up associations with the linguistic fallacy of magic, the notion that words can have a tangible effect on the real world” (154). Tornaghi goes so far as to say that with magic, “the word becomes a symbol through which the speaker is able to manipulate reality” (440). This charm allows the user to manipulate reality and manifest their desire, not through the power of the Christian divine, but through wordplay. As Flower puts it, magical charms deal with “the discourse between man and his universe” (17). 

Diplomatic Transcription

ƿiðymbe nimearþan ofer

ƿeorp mid þinre sƿiþran

handa under þinum sƿi

þran fet ⁊ cƿet foic un

der fot funde ichit

hƿæt eorðe mæg ƿið

ealraƿihta gehƿilce

⁊ ƿið andan ⁊ ƿiðæmin

de ⁊ ƿiðþa micelan

mannes tungan ⁊ ƿið

anfar ƿearp ofer greot

þan hisƿirman ⁊cƿeð

sitte ge sige ƿif sigað

to eorþan næfre ge

ƿilde toƿuda fleogan 

beogesƿagemindige

mines godes sƿa bið

manna gehƿilcme

tes ⁊ eþeles

Semi-Diplomatic Transcription

wið ymbe nim earþan ofer[weorp] 

mid þinre swiþran

handa under þinum swi[þran]

fet [ond] cwet fo ic un[der]

fot funde ic hit

hwæt eorðe mæg wið

ealrawihta gehwilce

[ond] wið andan [ond] wið æmin[de]

[ond] wiðþa micelan

mannes tungan [ond] wið

an forwearp ofer greot

þan hi swirman [ond] cweð

sitte ge sigewif sigað

to eorþan næfre ge[wilde]

to wuda fleogan 

beo ge [swa] gemindige

mines godes swa bið

manna gehwilc me[tes]

[ond] eþeles

Normalised Transcription

Wið ymbe: 

Nim earþan, oferweorp mid þinre swiþran handa under þinum swiþran fet ond cwet; 

“Fo ic under fot, 

funde ic hit.

hwæt eorðe mæg wið

ealrawihta gehwilce

ond wið andan ond wið 

æminde ond wið þa micelan

mannes tungan.” 

Ond wið an forweorp ofer greot þan hi swirman ond cweð;

“Sitte ge sigewif,

sigað to eorþan

næfre gewilde

to wuda fleogan 

beo ge swa gemindige

mines godes 

swa bið manna gehwilc 

metes ond eþeles”.

Translation

Against a swarm of bees: 

Take soil, and with your dominant hand, throw it down under your dominant foot and declare;

“I seize under foot, I wish for it.  

So, earth prevails against each and every creature

and against envy and against neglect 

and against the great tongue of man.”

And throw dust over them, after they begin to swarm, and declare;

“Stay, you wise-women, fall to the ground,

never to fly to the wood untamed.

Be so mindful of my welfare

As each man is of food and of dwelling.”

Featured Image: Illustration of Mrs. Tittlemouse from The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. Taken from Wikipedia.