Leeds Report #1, or, the one with dirty jokes in

BBC Merlin - Arthur with sword - Say it with Phallic Symbols

I promised to do my duty to the blogular community and write up a summary of Dick Jokes Presented At Leeds. Reviewing my notes, I am astounded to find that I attended a mere two papers featuring lewd material – I’m happy to say that conversation at the bar compensated for this terrible lack, but I didn’t take notes on that. I didn’t even give a paper with dirty jokes in it, out of concern for the Seriousness of Leeds.1 Clearly a mistake. So here we are, stuck with a mere two papers of dirty jokes!


Chronicle Stories of Accused Queens in England, Jonathan Stavsky (Dept. of English, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) – session 1314

Now, this paper was in a session entitled ‘English Romance, Nation, and (Obscene) Scribal Innovation’ – I went not for the obscene part but because I’d met one of the earlier speakers and wanted to hear him talk. Strangely, no one talked about obscene scribal innovation, and I can’t remember there being much scribal innovation at issue at all. I will report on the other papers later, hopefully – they had no dirty jokes and so are inappropriate for this post.

Stavsky’s paper was fascinating, but suffered, I think from Too Much Material syndrome. He talked about an episode in a Winchester annal (the title of which I can’t remember, and the intergoogletubes are just turning up lots of references to The Winchester Annalist, all from the one book) in which Queen Emma of Normandy is said to have been accused of adultery. Stavsky tried to do two things in his paper – firstly, analyse this passage; and secondly, link it in to narrative accounts of the trials of queens, especially Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. I would be interested to read a written-up version, because I had trouble following the progress between these two parts of the argument in oral format.2

The episode Stavsky spoke about was one in which Queen Emma, having been accused of adultery, is exiled from her home, along with the bishop AElfwine, her supposed lover. She appeals to various bishops asking them to permit her to undergo ordeal by hot iron. However, Edward’s best-buddy clergyman, Robert of Jumièges, insists that she walk over nine red-hot ploughshares. This she does, after appealing to St Swithun for aid; after her exculpation and restoration to her home, she and Ælfwine both make donations to the church of St Swithun at Winchester.

So far, so good. There is some historical basis for this – Emma was dispossessed, along with bishop Stigand (a political ally, in this story replaced by her local bishop Ælfwine), in 1043, and rehabilitated in 1044. No good reason to think she was sleeping with any bishops, although, if you ask me, Emma of Normandy is one attractive eleventh-century lady; I could hardly blame any bishops who wanted to take up with her. For the most part, the annalist seems to be making it up, or relying on pre-existing sources; and he has a particular interest in talking up the role of St Swithun in English history, and making sure everyone knows Robert of Jumièges is Not A Nice Fellow. The annalist is also a massive fanboy of Juvenal and sprinkles his text with quotations from same.

Well behaved women rarely make historyOne interesting thing to note is that while the story is clearly fictitious, it’s well and truly in keeping with the fierce personality of Emma of Normandy. The account includes a long letter supposedly from Emma to the bishops, defending herself and her not-lover: this account is equally sprinkled with quotations from Juvenal, suggesting that the annalist didn’t think it dissonant for a woman to have the education and rhetorical skills associated with that type of writing. Stavsky notes that Emma’s letter, advocating for herself and proposing her own trial, is unique amongst narratives of accused queens. The account is false, but it’s good evidence of the survival of Emma’s badass reputation – testament to her long influence and, I would add, the skill of the author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae.

Now, let us speculate about the sex lives of bishops! Firstly, the annalist has Robert of Jumièges describe Bishop Ælfwine as one who ‘swings his bottom’ while talking about purity – another quotation from Juvenal, well-recognised as implying (passive) homosexual proclivities.3 So that was fun – it’s always nice to know the kind of slurs which might have been kicking around in the middle ages. Technical terminology like ‘sodomy’ is well and good (and easily identifiable), but euphemisms and insults give you a different sort of handle on how sexualities and (possibly?) identities might have been constructed.

To add to the interesting speculations, Stavsky noted that Robert’s behaviour toward Edward in leading him astray is consistently described by the annalist as seducere, not deducere. William Whittacker tells me that seducere isn’t particularly common (Whittacker’s Words was designed for medievalists, wasn’t it? I could be barking up a classicist tree here), and the limited semantic field he gives it suggests the annalist was probably deliberately implying something – at the very least ‘lead astray’ rather than just ‘lead’. I have a feeling this may not be a *new* observation, although I can’t think where I’ve seen it before, but it was an interesting one all the same. My hons. supervisor always did say there was something odd about Edward the Confessor.

HERE ENDETH THE DIRTY JOKE. There was an actual argument about the survival of the legend of Emma of Normandy and its influence on other accused-queen narratives, but my work here is done. Next Leeds recap – a WHOLE PAPER ABOUT SWYVING.


Princess Bride - Buttercup looking distressed1. Well, I made my standard quip about how I personally am into talkative women but Yvain prefers his chicks beautiful and crying, and what that may or may not say about his taste.1.1
2. Not necessarily Stavsky’s fault. Remember I said I don’t have the best attention span in the world anymore? Yeah. This is it in action.
3. One thing Stavsky didn’t talk about – because the dirty bits weren’t the point of the paper – was the fact that Robert of Jumièges is thus accusing Ælfwine of being *both* a (heterosexual) adulterer and a (passive) homosexual. I’d have to look more closely at the text myself, but it didn’t seem to see any difficulty with that accusation – something that deserves more investigation in the light of critical arguments that medieval sex/gender was organised along passive/active rather than male/female lines (there’s a quick summary of that in Ruth Marzo Karras’ ‘Doing Unto Others’).

1.1 What it says is that he’s attracted to women who fit the standard heroine paradigm – superlatively beautiful – and are seen to perform appropriate social functions, such as the exhibition of grief.


One Response to “Leeds Report #1, or, the one with dirty jokes in”

  1. Leeds Report #7, or, more fun with Middle English « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] Because I have my priorities straight, I’ve already reported on one paper from session 1314,  ‘English Romance, Nation, and (Obscene) Scribal Innovation’: it had speculations on the sex lives of bishops. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: