Friday, 27 August 2010

10 Things I'll miss about York, the University and the MA in Medieval Literatures

All in all, I've had a bit of a tough Summer. The death of a close friend, illness and a brief stay in hospital and, on top of all of that, having to write this blasted dissertation. Yet, as the deadline hurtles rapidly towards us, I've been reminiscing over the past four years I've spent in York, both in my Undergraduate degree on the main campus, and this year at the CMS. So, I've come up with a list of the 10 things I'm probably going to miss most about this place, the University and the programme. Feel free, if you've been to York, at the University, on this programme or another at CMS, to add to the list below.

So, here we go, ten things I'll miss, in no particular order.

1) The Postmedieval Reading Group - Ben and I came up with the idea for the group, quite unsurprisingly, whilst in the pub, and of all our drunken ideas, this is my favourite. (With the possible exception of our gun-running 'get-rich-quick' scheme). The group met every other week for two terms, with particular highlights being the Chaucer's Cook/Chaucer's Punk group, which spawned the 'Chaucer's Loaded Pies' post I wrote back in February, and also the last meeting of the group, on Chevalier Assigne and Animality. The groups have been indispensable to me, on a purely selfish level, as they've produced so many good discussions which have inspired many of my papers (Collusion alert!)

2) Coffee in the Refectory - The King's Manor refectory: home of cheap, albeit rubbish, coffee; greasy pasties and, of course, of late: beer. This, of course, is the place where we all met on a regular basis, chatted about rubbish, bitched about deadlines and having to write essays, and generally hung out. My favourite moment was, of course, when the lady who runs the refectory told us we were 'being too loud and disturbing the other patrons' when the place was totally empty, because we had the giggles over something or other.

3) The general scent of panic and fear in the BSB around deadlines - this, of course, is not specific to the MA in Medieval Literatures. As deadlines approach, the tension in the BSB (the Berrick Saul Building - Graduate Centre for the Humanities at the University) reaches fever pitch, and you can practically smell the fear coming off the MA students as they frantically write the last thousand words of their essays. Of course, the absolute best example of this is a certain Californian MA in Medieval History student's despair around the Summer term deadlines. "You'll Never Finish" has quickly become the motto of the BSB.

4) The Lake, at night - the University of York, though generally a disgusting blight on the landscape, a cluster of '60s concrete incongruously sat in the quiet village of Heslington, is arranged around one of Europe's larges ornamental lakes. True, it's only five feet deep; true, the first three feet are pure duck poo; and true, falling in will land you in the doctor's surgery, if not in hospital. But, at night, as the birds are beginning to go to sleep, the University takes on new character, and the lake becomes a great place to go and sit, read (if you can find sufficient light, obviously) and even walk around.

5) Gillian and Brittany, CMS Office Administrators Extraordinaire - Where would the CMS be without Gillian Galloway and Brittany Scowcroft, whose tireless efforts to keep beleaguered Medievalists in check never cease to amaze me. They helped so much to organise the Postmedieval Reading Group with Ben and me, booking rooms, sending out emails, giving us (most importantly) access to the CMS wine store to keep the discussion *achem* flowing. Brittany even sent an email to the entirety of the CMS mailing list, which was a forward email from Ben, the first line of which read simply "Michael is an idiot". Without such insight, the CMS would surely fall apart!

6) The bubbling sexual tension of the Campus Library - the JBM, the main campus library at York, is one of the most unpleasant places to work on the planet. The librarians tend to keep the floors on which any books are kept at about the surface temperature of the sun, the books are rarely where they are supposed to be, and the humanities book provision is very poor indeed. The one thing that keeps me going, however, is the underlying current of sexual tension that amuses me greatly. If anyone has ever had the pleasure of being sat in the library, usually during exams or around essay deadlines, it really is as though one spark could set the whole place off. This, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to happen - but surely it's inevitable?

7) J Baker's Bistro Moderne - so far, most of the things I'm going to miss have been focussed on the University or the CMS. However, there is one restaurant above all others I will miss when I leave York, and that is J Baker's. The reasonably-priced, excellent and inventive food is a must for anyone who enjoys local produce worked into brilliantly-conceived and flawlessly-executed dishes. Plus, the restaurant manager, Audrey, is a total dish. Ha. Seriously, though, I've had some wonderful dinners here, and Ben and I have had some brilliant (and extravagant) lunches there, which often have lasted until three or four in the afternoon, have involved seven or eight courses, and a whole lot of wine. In fact, I owe Ben lunch there next week. Visit the website to check the menu here

8) The Evil Eye Lounge - it was here that many of the friendships of the MA in Medieval English Literatures were forged. The Evil Eye is a strange place; a cocktail-bar-come-south-east-asian-restaurant with some wonderful staff, excellent drinks, and authentic food. We've spent so much time (and money) in there as a group, I think we count most definitely as regulars. During the Autumn term, a few of us would often 'nip' there for a quick drink between Palaeography Class and our next seminar, whatever that might have been. I will miss most of all, the increasing generosity of the spirit measures as the evening progresses and the bar staff's 'sampling' becomes more apparent. My favourite moment, however, was with Jeffrey Cohen, Kathy Lavezzo and some other minor medievalists when JJC ordered six Old Fashioneds at the bar (this is a drink that takes 5 minutes of dedicated 'muddling' and 'stirring' to complete). A truly excellent place.
9) York - the city of York is a beautiful place to live, and a wonderful place to study. I feel really quite privileged (sap that I am) to have been able to be here for four years. The city really is beautiful and, coming from Essex, where the vast majority of towns and cities are the victims of post-war development and expansion, I will miss the city greatly. I don't think, on a medievalists' blog, I really need to extol the virtue of the city, but suffice it to say, if you've yet to visit, you really should.

10) Friends and Colleagues - It was always going to come to this, though I promise not to make it too gushy. In my four years at York, I've met some amazing people, many of whom I have the (dubious) pleasure of now calling my friends. Not all of them are medievalists (I cannot, after all, be accountable for the bad choices of others) though many of them are. More than just putting up with my endless dickheaded-ness, caustic sense of humour and near constant lack of propriety, many of them have even sought my company on a regular basis. I've met people I'll never lose contact with and who I speak to nearly every day (Ben, Welsh Tom, J Daniel Herron, Ninja Chris, Sam Gonzalez, to name some of the most important), but also people with whom I hope to keep in contact, whatever they may be doing and wherever they may be, even if it's fairly sporadic. In the past year, I've met some amazingly talented medievalists, from across disciplines and approaches, all of whom I have no doubt will be very successful in whatever they do. Looking back through the previous 9 things I'll miss, I've come to realise that none of those 9 would have been the same had I not been able to share them with my mates, my friends and colleagues.

Gosh, right, that was a bit more gushy than I was expecting - I'm off to do something manly and emotionally repressed, before continuing with the dissertation. Do, please, comment on things you'll miss from York or, indeed, if you're leaving anywhere, things you might generally miss.

Ta-ta for now and, as always, much love,


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Future of an Illusion Or, What now for Hwæt The Swyve?

Anyone who regularly read Hwæt The Swyve in its heyday, ie earlier this year, will have noticed that we’ve written very little of late. The truth is, we’ve both been extraordinarily busy writing our dissertations and generally being involved in the entire self-absorbed mess that this entails. Of course, things haven’t been helped by the fact that the Postmedieval Reading Group has had its last meeting, and that Ben (the modernist traitor that he is) is busy thinking about the imminent excitement of his vastly important Ph.D project, which I hope he’ll post something about in the near future.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a little time out of my busy writing/sobbing/wailing schedule to post about the future of ‘Hwæt The Swyve?’, if indeed it has one. Well, as I mentioned, Ben is off to Queen Mary College in London to pursue an incredibly interesting project, supervised by Jacqueline Rose, on the Psychoanalyst Masud Khan, and so his involvement with the blog, I guess, will unfortunately be minimal. I’ve asked him to consider setting up a sister blog, maybe just called ‘What the F*ck?’, but whether he does is entirely up to him. My plans for the next twelve months, meanwhile, are somewhat less exciting. Having failed to gain funding to start my Ph.D at King’s College London this year, I’m taking a ‘year off’ to work, earn some money, and re-enter the application cycle for both English and American schools for Ph.D places. Of course, I’m going to try to stay ‘on the scene’, so to speak – I’ll be off to the BABEL conference in Austin, TX in November; and have submitted a paper to a panel at Kalamazoo for 2011. So I might try to continue this blog, as a record of my continuing involvement in everything medieval, as well as just keeping a general opinion-based, pseudo-academic foot in the door of online medievalisms.

One of my big plans for the next year is to save up enough money to embark upon a grand American road trip with my friend, Welsh Tom, who is similarly taking a year out of serious education before becoming, of all things, a schoolteacher. The plan is, we’ll fly over to one coast in early July, rent or buy a cheap campervan, and then spend three months pootling about the grand old US of A! This, of course, is contingent on us both getting good enough jobs to fund the endeavour, but you’ll be able to keep track of our progress and plans through my writing here, too, I guess.

Eventually, probably when Ben and I have finished our Dissertations (so sometime in late September) we’ll put our heads together and write something about the Postmedieval Reading group, its successes and failures and our trials and tribulations with it. Until then, though, I hope that I have tempted anyone who currently follows and reads to keep following and reading, as I promise some more productive and entertaining posts will follow!

Much Love, and ta-ta for now,


Friday, 21 May 2010

More more more...and our Anglo-Norman Collaboration

Hi guys,

Michael is now back from sunny Michigan, and will doubtless be posting some delightful tidbits from his time there - boozing, mainly, but perhaps he had some revelations about medieval studies? 

Next Wednesday, at 4pm in King's Manor, the Anglo-Norman Reading Group will collaboratewith the POSTMEDIEVAL and meet to discuss Medieval Disability Studies (via Chris Baswell's article 'King Edward and the Cripple' and Lennard J Davis' seminal book Enforcing Normalcy)  in two different versions of the life of Saint Edward the King. The almost-already-nearly-arrived field of medieval disability studies is one of the most exciting things to emerge in critical trends in recent years, combining ideas from Posthuman, Psychoanalytic, Feminist and Queer discourses - if you fancy a taster, our 'friends' over at ITM have put up some very interesting bits and pieces on the subject. 

Karl Steel's recent short splurge should get you going, but just try searching 'disability' on the site and seeing where that leads...  

Tom O'Donnell will be performing stunning sight translations of keys passages, and there will be CMS funded nibbles. Reading is available in the usual spots at King's Manor.  

Meanwhile, another recent essay. You should comment and Enjoy!


Frendes, beth nought squoymous,/ This is the maner off myn house[1]: Table Manners in Richard Couer de Lion and Sir Gowther


So it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the

inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really

always has been.  And the guest, the invited hostage,

becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the

master of the host. The guest becomes the host’s host.

The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte)of the host



Dr. Lecter’s obscene joke that closes the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs – “I’d love to chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner”[3] – certainly suggests that his hospitality is always tied up with hostility. King Richard, of the eponymous Middle English romance, decides that like Lecter he will consume those who are or have been incarcerating him: whilst Lecter selects the sadistic psychiatrist (Dr. Chilton) who tormented him in captivity, Richard’s dinner guests are the Saracens laying siege to Acre, those who “forbarre oure vytalle” [l.5334]. There is a complex economy of need and control at this moment: King Richard executes and consumes his hostages, and turns his dinner guests into frightened hostages (they are held hostage to “the maner off myn house”, and their politeness, as much as anything else), though Richard is himself in turn held hostage by his besiegers (as a foreign intruder), and his appetite.  Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality is essentially the philosophical expansion of Lecter’s joke, and presents us with a potentially useful description of the fragile axis along which such inversions of guest and host take place in the romance.

This paper will consider the ways in which Richard Couer de Lion plays with the discourses that are used to organize the medieval table in courtesy manuals – specifically drawing on Stans Puer ad Mensam and The Babees Book amongst others. The two key dinner tables of Richard will be explored in order to think about medieval notions of hospitality and alterity – this discussion will draw on the work of Jacques Derrida and his 2000 book Of Hospitality, though by framing Derrida’s work in a medieval context. Analysis of Richard will also focus more specifically on the use of bread in his eating, the manner of his eating, and the status of the salt-cellar on the medieval dining table. The ways in which the enjoyment of eating has to be codified, and organized, and the way that its obverse of excessive, uncontrolled eating appears in Richard Couer de Lion and Sir Gowther will be considered as indicative of an anxiety about oral-sadistic impulses in these texts. The discussion of Sir Gowther will essentially, to ‘cannibalize’ a term from Nicola Macdonald’s analysis of Richard (‘Eating people and the alimentary logic of Richard Couer de Lion[4]), consider the ‘alimentary logic’ of the text and the integration of such an oral sadistic impulse into masculine identity. The kinds of discourses of eating that touch Richard Couer de Lion allow us to frame our analysis of Sir Gowther, a text in which eating and oral-sadism profoundly structure the narrative. In this way, the paper hopes to uncover and articulate medieval fantasies of incorporation in these romances. 


Richard’s consumption of the raw heart after his escape from prison is one of the most striking moments in the text – we can see there an inversion of host and guest. Though he starts as a prisoner, his violation of the ‘normal’ use of the salt (salt is transferred to the trencher and meat from the cellar, not the meat to the salt) circumvents the formal structure of eating at the medieval table. The extortionate cost of salt of course renders it a privileged product, and it is on the whole to be treated as something to be protected:


loke þy salte be sutille, whyte, fayre and drye,

and þy planere for thy salte / shalle be made of yverye /

þe brede þerof ynches two / þen þe length, ynche told thrye;

and þy salt sellere lydde / towche not thy salt bye.[5]


The importance of the purity of the salt, taken here from John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, certainly makes clear the extremity of Richard’s transgression. In The Babees Book too, we are told: “The salte also touche nat in his salere/

Withe nokyns mete, but lay it honestly/ On youre Trenchoure, for that is curtesy.”[6] Though, the language used and the emphasis on purity and contamination certainly reminds us of the key characteristics of the romance heroine’s body: “whyte, fayre…made of yverye”. Unfortunately, we are not treated to a full physical description of the King’s daughter in Richard Couer de Lion, only as far as being told she is a “lady brighte” [l.890]. The hermetically sealed virgin body, pure and uncorrupted, is ‘lidded’ in much the same way Russell’s salt cellar is (“the salt sellere lydde / towche not thy salt bye”) – a container whose opening and closing is carefully controlled. We should note, too, the “kerchofe…that was of silke,/ that was als white als mores mylke” [ll.1031-1032] that Richard demands of Margery – the white of her token metonymically linking it with the white of the salt he later stains. When Richard ties her veils around his arm before fighting the lion (“abowte his arme he theym wande” [1064]), we must presume that they become stained, as he rips out the lion’s heart, in much the same way as the saltcellar does later on. The way that Richard ends his enforced starvation in captivity is perhaps just as shocking and as disruptive as his seduction of the king’s daughter, and there certainly seems to be some kind of congruence between these acts. Richard’s appetites – both sexual and alimentary – are totally intertwined in this section: the satisfaction of his sexual desire (something prohibited, illegitimate, the “dishonoure” [l.971] the King notes) violates normal sexual codes just as his eating violates the rules of the table. The bloodstained salt, and cloth, enact the violence of the illegitimate violation of the King’s property, in both his saltcellar and daughter.


This scene can also be seen in a different light when looking at a potential definition of host in Middle English. The MED offers, amongst more obvious statements (“One who entertains guests in his own home, one who invites guests to a feast”[7]) a description of the host as “An animal offered for sacrifice, a sacrificial victim; also, any sacrificial offering, a sacrifice”. The King, as Richard’s host, sends the lion as the agent of his hostile intent, his wish to kill and, in a sense, consume Richard (something he cannot do himself, of course, because “Men schall no kyng the dede do” [l954]). The lion is starved for three days (“withaldis hym his mete/ Thre dayes that he noghte ne ete” [999-1000]) in order to whet his appetite – his starvation strangely paralleling Richard’s – and the king’s court relish the thought of eating Richard up. (In this scene, as later, eating people is the way in which royal authority is exercised). What happens presents us with a curious inversion – rather than being the agent of Richard’s demise, the lion becomes the source of his nourishment, his satisfaction, an unwitting sacrifice offered up to a stranger. Richard’s subversion of the king’s hostility (host, in Middle English, can also refer to an armed, hostile force – the latin hostis means enemy) into a version of hospitality that certainly allows our Derridean epigraph to reenter the picture here: “the guest, the invited hostage…here becomes the host’s host”.[8] Richard as a disruptive outsider deconstructs and destabilizes the authority of the King’s high table (the “desse”) and the authority of the father in normal sexual politics – the host becomes the hostage – transforming through bodily incorporation his weapon against Richard into much needed relief from hunger. Indeed, it is worth noting the injunction of the courtesy manual As the Good Wife Taught her Daughter on the treatment of guests, as here Richard is implicitly provided for:


But weelcome faire þi neiboris þat comen to þee warde

With mete, drinke, & honest chere, Such as þou maist to hem bede[9]


Richard’s table manners in this scene are also marked by his method of eating. The mediator for eating at the medieval table – the bread of the trencher – is eschewed by Richard here (“withowtten brede the hert he ete” [1105]) and along with his excessive appetite alienates him: the King noting “this is a deuyll and na man” [1108], with a certain “awoundrede” [‘marvelling’] that Richard eats the raw heart with “so gud will” [1111]. But Richard’s alterity is more complex than it seems – despite being the subject of an absorbed gaze (“the kyng and his men alle thay behalte” [1104]) he is described as a “Crystyn kyng and moste of renown,/ Strong Richerde” [1113-1114], a figure who is simultaneously a terrifying “deuyll” and a “crystyn kyng”.


What is Richard, “moste of renown”, renowned for exactly? When tormenting his Saracen dinner guests, Richard remarks, that “I ne wolde, for nothyng,/ that wurd off me in the world schulde spryng,/ I were so euyl off maneres/ That I wolde mysdoo messangers” [3513-3515]. The “renown” that is associated with Richard earlier is very much to do with the cultivation of some pretty “euyl maneres”, and his statement here obviously seems very wry, a parody of this reputation. This curious ambivalence about Richard’s anthropophagi can also be seen in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, in the account of the baby-eating giant of Mont Saint Michel. The children that the giant consumes are “broched in maner lyke birdis”,[10] and he eats them with “pykyll and powder with many precious wynes” – framed by the practices and condiments of medieval dining.


Richard too enjoys “pyment, clarre and drykes lythe” [3501] and “white wyne and and rede, pyment and clarre” [3621] with his meal of human flesh. The “pykyll”[11] enjoyed by Malory’s giant with the babies – bodies that end up no better than, and just as delicious as, roasted birds – is, according to the MED, “a spicy sauce or gravy served with meat or fowl”.[12] King Richard, too, also reduces human flesh to yet another foodstuff when he eats “thereof ryght faste I schall,/ As it were a tendyr chyke” [3432-3433]. The introduction of a sauce to the dish Malory’s giant is enjoying here changes the register of the roasting of meat (human or otherwise) from mere savagery to the bourgeois feast. The “powder” that the giant uses to season his meat returns us to Richard – the Saracen heads are served with “salt…but no bred” [3443].


This lack of bread provides the most tangible link between his anthropophagi here and his consumption of the Lion’s heart earlier in the poem, also crystallizing the link between, and inversion of, ‘host’ and ‘guest’ that Richard toys with. When Richard serves up the boiled heads, we are told “No bred brought forth, whyt ne sour, / But salt and non other licour” [3577-3578], and around one hundred lines earlier, “Salt was set on but no bred” [3443]. This version of eating, which evokes Richard’s breadless consumption of the heart earlier in the poem, is transformed from a highly individualistic performance (Richard’s assertion of his difference in the earlier scene) to the “maner off myn house”, an organizing rule for foreigners and hosts alike. Richard’s enjoyment is elevated to a universal principal that organizes eating, and therein organizes alterity – “but youre maner I ne knewe” [3509]. The perversity of Richard’s table manners is accompanied by the obscene Lacanian superego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’,[13] an injunction that demands the same unreasonable, excessive pursuit of enjoyment that we see in Richard’s speedy consumption, as well as the ridiculing of his guests’ failed attempts to ever meet this demand:


For my loue, bes alles glad

And lokes ye be weel at eese.

Why kerve ye nought off youre mese,

And eetes faste as I doo? [3486-3489]


There is also another dimension of Richard’s breadless eating. The conspicuous lack of bread in both the heart-eating and in the anthropophagi scene reminds us of a further complication of the middle English ‘host’ – The bread consecrated in the Eucharist, the Eucharistic wafer before or after consecration” (MED). Richard’s devilishness is evidently something to do with the eschewing of bread, a semantic dismissal of the body of Christ. Richard’s incorporation of the lion’s flesh into his body, rather than the bread of the Eucharist certainly complicates any description of him within the text as a “Crystyn kyng” – no wonder both the Saracens (“this is the deuelys brodir” [3480]) and the Germans see him as infernal. This form of incorporation in the middle ages – the body of Christ – is in theory a more acceptable form of anthropophagi than eating your guests, and it is in Sir Gowther, as we shall see, that this socially sanctioned version of eating people is deployed to discipline Gowther’s oral impulses. It is perhaps even more striking then, that Richard eschews the Eucharistic bread – Richard’s eating is undisciplined, infernal, and unremittingly violent, and is nourished by heathen flesh rather than the sacrament.


This horrifying “maner off myn house”, is an obscene inversion of the measured and mediated eating of the Stans Puer ad Mensam and The Babees Book into an injunction to consume faster and more greedily, with grinding of teeth and animalistic gnawing. This ‘maner’ relies on enjoyment itself to organize the categories of Saracen and Christian – for all Richard’s monstrosity, and the ambivalence about his weird transgressions and insistence on manners, he insists, “I am kyng, Crysten and trewe” [3510]. The line that this follows, quite tellingly, is Richard’s admission that “youre maner I ne knewe”, as if it is ‘maner’ itself that decides difference.


Apart from his use of condiments, there are two things that typify Richard’s ‘maner’ in his eating. One of these is the peed at which he consumes food: “he eet faste” [3603] we are told, and the knight serving him must “karff off the hed” “in haste” [3603-3604] in order to keep pace with him. Again, earlier, when it is the Saracen meat that lifts Richard from his illness, we learn “he eet faster than he kerve myghte” [3108], his appetite vastly outpacing the normal alimentary rhythm. We can, and will, compare Richard’s appetite that exceeds the ‘normal’ limits of consumption to Sir Gowther’s draining of his wet nurses’ breasts and the dismemberment of his mother’s nipple later in the essay. Richard’s injunction to the Saracen guests, too, is to “ete faste/ And kerue your mese” [3489]. Indeed, the number of references for this short section is startling – when planning his monstrous banquet Richard imagines that when the head is set down he will “ete thereof ryght faste I schall” [3432].


This speed, of course, is very uncivilized, and the courtesy manuals certainly attest this. The Stans Puer ad Mensam notes that one should “Drinke not bridelid for haste ne necligence”,[14] this “bridelid” (according to the MED, the past participle of ‘bridelen’, “Of persons: to strike a posture of a horse on parade, i.e., with head reined in and chest thrown out.”) suggesting that such aggressive consumption reduces one to the level of an animal. The Babees Book offers a slightly different, though no less pertinent, possibility for what excessive appetite might signify:


Kutte nouhte youre mete eke as it were Felde men,

That to theyre mete haue suche an appetyte     

That they ne rekke in what wyse, where ne when,

Nor how vngoodly they on theyre mete twyte[15]


It is the appetite of the “felde men” (‘wild men’) that disrupts their sense of propriety – “they ne rekke in what wyse” – as if their desire could be responsible for the breakdown of civil society, their “vngoodly” nature. Indeed, appetite itself disrupts a sense of place, and a sense of occasion – “they ne rekke…where ne when”. This wildness, or animality, in eating is crystallized in Richard too when he “grond the flesch ful harde,/ As a wood lyoun he fared” [3605-3606]. Richard’s animal appetite here obviously mirrors the starved lion of our other key scene – his incorporation of the lion’s heart into his body there has obviously had a more profound effect than simply sating his hunger. This incorporation also invokes the breakdown of the Middle English host as an enemy, or a hostile force, and the host as “one who entertains guests in his own home, one who invites guests to a feast” (MED) – Richard and the lion become inseparable when he integrates the lion’s (and the king’s) hostility into his own hospitality.


The grinding of Richard’s teeth -“the kyng eet the flesh & gnew the bones” [3201] – and “gnawen here flesch to the bones” [3219] is worthy of note, and also that which eventually ties Richard and Sir Gowther together. Like Malory’s giant, Richard’s “gnawyng” tells us a lot about the way he eats – according to the courtesy manuals, gnawing is something that is quite frankly not done. Richard Weste’s School of Virtue notes that “to gnaw the bones belongeth chiefly to dogs”,[16] and we are told in another part of The Babees Book that “gnawing the bones as it were dogs” is “beastliness”[17].


Richard’s beastliness is more to do with lions than with dogs (unlike Sir Gowther of course), though the association of such poor table manners with the bestial asks us to see Richard’s un-mannerliness as un-manliness, a ‘Becoming Inhuman’ of his own. At the conclusion of Levi-Strauss’ book on table manners, the body is the site where “nature is unleashed”, the opposite of the “social person”.[18] Malory’s giant, Richard and Gowther are all isolated, in one respect or another: the “gnawyng” giant “sate at his soupere alone”;[19] Gowther is banished from the Emperor’s table to sit amongst the dogs; Richard is made monstrous by his devilish alterity. In this gnawing on bones, there is no intervention between Levi-Strauss’ two poles – of “the social person” and their body – by “insulators or mediators”[20] which in this context would be the carving knight or the bread of the trencher that “prevents the occurrence of the threatened catastrophe”.[21] The catastrophe here is an excess of appetite (or indeed, appetite as excess) that threatens the stability of the social itself.


It is Richard’s animalistic gnawing that brings us to Sir Gowther, who literally “gnofe” like a dog, and with the dogs:


Ther come a spanyell with a bon,

   In his mothe he hit bare,

Syr Gwother hit fro hym droghhe,

And gredely on hit he gnofe[22]


The pope, in Sir Gowther, demands that the semi-monstrous knight eats only food from the mouths of dogs – in a sense, he is organizing Gowther’s eating along the lines that would seem to suit him best, a penance that excludes from the medieval aristocratic table. Gowther’s hosts, in this “far cuntre”, are also instrumental in organizing a certain kind of table manners of their own, so that he can be integrated into their banquet hall – their ‘conditional hospitality’ requires the stranger to be tamed, and to adopt what King Richard would probably call “the maner off my house”. The violence of the steward against Gowther – he attempts to beat him with a stick, like a dog – enacts the authority by which host must secure himself as host. As Jeffrey Cohen notes in his analysis of the romance, Gowther’s body “is completely closed from social intercourse: his food prechewed, his mouth an organ that receives and ingests rather than reacts and interacts”.[23] My argument here, following on from though also digressing from Cohen, is that it is the disciplining of Gowther’s oral sadism (and the disciplining of his eating) that is key to his incorporation into the social order. Gowther’s mouth, in Jeffrey Cohen’s analysis, is passive – it “receives and ingests” – when he is amongst the dogs, and this particular moment in the romance should be compared with the orally aggressive infant Gowther of earlier. The violence of the infant who “wax breme and brathe”[24] is crystallized in his treatment of his wet nurses that the Duke sends for:


And aftur melche wemen he sende,

Tho best in that cuntré,

That was full gud knyghttys wyffys.

He sowkyd hom so thei lost ther lyvys,

Sone had he sleyne three! [ll.110-114]


Gowther eventually suckles twelve wet nurses to death. In much the same way that Richard eats faster than a Knight can provide for, baby Gowther suckles beyond the physical limits of the human body – he is, quite literally, insatiable. Whilst Richard at least waits for his meat to be carved, the infant Gowther decides to take matters into his own hands (or mouth), when he tears his mother’s nipple away whilst feeding:


His modur fell afowle unhappe,

Upon a day bad hym tho pappe,

He snaffulld to hit soo

He rofe tho hed fro tho brest [ll.127-130] 


There is something potentially infernal about Gowther’s eating, just as there is about Richard’s – his mother first “cald a prest”[25] when he attempted to dismember her. We should not forget, of course, that Richard’s taste for raw meat also leads to him to be referred to as a “deull”. In Cohen’s analysis, Gowther’s mouth is deprived of its potentially destructive agency, his “prechewed” food representing a domestication of its violent impulses. Indeed, the “flesch full gud”[26] that Gowther receives from the mouth of one of the greyhounds later in the romance is a more mediated version of his taste for raw meat that he pursues with his mother’s breast – appetite, it seems, is ok, but only if it can be disciplined correctly. Melanie Klein, one of the key theorists of oral sadism, writes in her paper Love, Guilt and Reparation that “when a baby feels frustrated at the breast, in his phantasies he attacks this breast…he wishes to bite up and tear up his mother and her breasts”,[27] and her developmental story can perhaps shed some light on this peculiarly medieval one. The Eucharistic dimension of this scene – the maiden washes the dogs’ mouths with wine before one passes bread to Gowther – is certainly an attempt to integrate Gowther into a socially acceptable fantasy of oral incorporation. Klein’s notion of introjection, in which the baby unconsciously takes into its psyche the mother’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ breasts is itself a form of incorporation that mediates the early aggressive phantasies “of a definitely cannibalistic nature”[28] – in short, the baby finds a way to incorporate an object without physically annihilating it. In Sir Gowther, and indeed, in the middle ages, the situation is perhaps slightly different – Gowther does not just fantasise about eating his mother’s breast, but actually does it, and the Eucharist is literally consuming the body of Christ. The function of the Eucharist though, similarly to Klein’s notion of ‘making reparation’, is spiritually and psychically restorative, and Gowther’s religious penance at the hands of the pope, his guilt (“his hert ful sare”[29]), and his  “mony odur meracullus”[30] are in much the same register as Klein’s penitent baby:


“If the baby has, in his aggressive phantasies, injured his mother by biting and tearing her up, he may soon build up phantasies that he is putting the bits together again and repairing her”[31]


We do not have to look very hard in Sir Gowther to see that his miracles are precisely those that restore the body to its wholeness and correct the damaged parts. Perhaps the romance of Sir Gowther is articulating a developmental story of its own about what has to happen with the oral sadism of little boys, and the difficulties in integrating their appetites into something socially useful, and presents the institutions of the church and the family as a potential solution to this problem of aggressivity:


For he garus tho blynd to see

And tho dompe to speyke, pardé,

And makus tho crokyd ryght,

And gyffus to tho mad hor wytte


The priest that his mother calls for earlier on is answered it seems, by the figure of the pope – “his first gesture of submission”[32] Cohen notes, when Gowther kneels before him – and his organization of Gowther’s oral excess. We can nuance Cohen’s analysis further – “Gowther’s body receives a ‘domesticating’…imprint”[33] – by suggesting that the form of this domestication, and the precise part of his body that it focuses on, is his mouth. Gowther’s reconciliation and reparation towards the end of the romance is marked by a “mangeyre”, a ‘wedding feast’, a situation that indicates a kind of developmental achievement, that he has been returned to the ‘civilized’ banqueting table, and can eat with a woman without eating a woman. The daughter’s newfound voice sanctions Gowther to “Eyte and drynke and make mery.”[34] Cohen’s analysis of Gowther’s white armour also suggests that his aggressive oral impulses have been sublimated and socialized fully into a ‘correct’ form – killing Saracens: “Gowther is as white as the alimental milk that he drained from his wetnurses along with their lives; only no trace of the monster now remains”.[35]  Perhaps the alimentary logic of Sir Gowther is about restructuring this monstrosity and shares a similar anxiety, though a particularly medieval one, to the Kleinian baby:


…The unconscious fear of being incapable of loving others sufficiently or truly, and particularly of not being able to master aggressive impulses toward others: they dread being a danger to the loved one.[36]


In Richard, eating together can turn into eating each other, where there is an ever-present threat of taking recourse to animality. King Richard’s poor table manners assert an unruliness that belies and disrupts the disciplining of the body that is entailed in becoming male in the middle ages. Sir Gowther, on the other hand, is precisely a developmental story that culminates with successful integration, a picture of precisely how this disciplining of the oral operates in knightly culture. Richard and Sir Gowther are certainly at different stages on the same trajectory – whilst Gowther is domesticated, his oral sadism tamed, King Richard represents the experienced obscene cynicism that undermines these disciplinary mechanisms – the Eucharist, the dinner table – that socialize Gowther in the first place, and highlights the instability of such systems. In a powerful sense, Richard’s obscenity undermines the possibility of making reparation that the narrative in Sir Gowther hopes for.



































Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, ed. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Punblications, 1995.


Derrida, Jacques. Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.


Furnivall, Frederick James, ed. The babees book, Aristotle's A B C, Urbanitatis, Stans puer ad mensam, etc. London: The Early English Text Society, 1868.


Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, ed. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1999.


Klein, Melanie. Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works 1921-1945. New York: The Free Press, 1984.


Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Origin of Table Manners. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.


Malory, Thomas. Complete Works. Ed. Euguene Vinaver. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, n.d.


Nicola McDonald, ed. Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.


The Middle English Dictionary. .


The Silence of the Lambs. By Thomas Harris. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Anthony Hopkins. 1991.


trans., Edith Rickert and L.J. Naylor. The Babees Book: Medieval Manners for the Young. Cambridge: In Parentheses Publications Middle English Series, 2000.


Westmoreland, Mark. "Interruptions: Derrida and Hospitality." Kritike 2 (2008).




[1] Cristina Figueredo, ed., Richard, Coeur de Lion (York: York Medieval Press, Forthcoming). ll. 3505-3506

[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). p.125

[3] The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme, writ. Thomas Harris, perf. Anthony Hopkins, 1991.

[4] Nicola McDonald, ed., Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).

[5] Frederick James, ed. Furnivall, The babees book, Aristotle's A B C, Urbanitatis, Stans puer ad mensam, etc. (London: The Early English Text Society, 1868). ll. 57-60

[6] Ibid ll.159-161

[7] The Middle English Dictionary, .

[8] Derrida p.156

[9] Furnivall ll.168-169

[10] ‘Of King Arthur and the Emperor Lucius’ from Thomas Malory, Complete Works, ed. Euguene Vinaver, 2nd Edition (London: Oxford University Press). Pp.120-121

[11] Malory p.121

[12] MED

[13] Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989) provides the most comprehensive description of the obscene Lacanian superego and the function of enjoyment.

[14] Furnivall l.33

[15] Ibid ll.176-179

[16] Edith Rickert and L.J. Naylor trans., The Babees Book: Medieval Manners for the Young (Cambridge: In Parentheses Publications Middle English Series, 2000). p.82

[17] Ibid

[18] Claude Levi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[19] Malory p.121

[20] Levi-Strauss 302

[21] Ibid

[22]  ‘Sir Gowther’ from Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury ed., The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Punblications, 1995). ll.353-356

[23] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen ‘Gowther Among the Dogs: Becoming Inhuman C.1400’ from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler ed., Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1999). p.229

[24] Gowther 108

[25] Ibid 131

[26] Ibid 448

[27] Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and other works 1921-1945 (New York: The Free Press, 1984). p.308

[28] ‘Weaning’, Ibid, p.293

[29] Sir Gowther 699

[30] Sir Gowther 743

[31] ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ p.308

[32] Cohen p.229

[33] Ibid

[34] Sir Gowther 665

[35] Cohen p.234

[36] ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ p.309