Negotiating Time’s Boundaries: Identity, History, and Utopia in Four Medieval Works
Modern Westerners are by and large accustomed to think of time as a fixed process, flowing in one direction only, out of the past into the future. We experience this process as “the present,” a sense of “right now” against which the past is “behind” us and the future “before.” For the Middle Ages, one may broadly say that the same was true, with some reservations: the future is known—heaven or hell, and, after the apocalypse, New Jerusalem or hell—and the past is important first and foremost in light of that future. Both “sides” of the present, then, form boundaries around that present: the past has a purpose and should not be tampered with; the future will arrive in its time and should not be hurried along. While few works—outside Bede’s The Reckoning of Time and other philosophical treatises—deal directly with the nature of time, we may still see the boundary of history dealt with in particular moments in a variety of texts.1 Four medieval works that contain temporal boundaries are Beowulf, The Book (or Travels) of John Mandeville, Pearl, and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. The former two are concerned primarily with past and the latter two with the future. In Beowulf and Pearl, we see boundaries successfully guarded by those in power; in Mandeville and Malory, we see the boundaries transgressed by those with power. We can thus say that the boundary of time is thus also tied up with the boundaries of social identity and religion. In every instance, negotiating these boundaries allows us to see a utopian function emerge when the boundaries of time give way to a nascent, limitless hope.2
We begin with Anglo-Saxon literature, where the past is frequently depicted as mysterious, and that enigmatic nature is expressed in terms of sheer size. The remains, for example, of a settlement encountered in the poem “The Ruin” are called enta geworc, the “work of giants,” a judgment that simultaneously praises the majesty of the past while making it impossibly un-human and wondrous. If such wonders existed in the past, by the logic of that poem, they could not have been built by men. Something similar is at work in the past in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (~9th-11th c. CE). When Beowulf attempts to trespass on history, he is prevented from doing so by Hrothgar, who prefers a simpler memory of the past because it is easier to control.
The gigantic past appears in Beowulf in the sword-hilt with which Beowulf returns from his fight with Grendel’s mother. The hilt itself is all that remains; the rest, Beowulf tells Hrothgar, was burned away in the blood of the fiend (1666-1668). As Beowulf gives the hilt to Hrothgar, the narrator calls the artifact enta ærgeworc, the “ancient work of giants” (1679). Unlike those in “The Ruin,” however, these giants seem initially less than metaphoric:
Hrothgar maðelode-- hylt sceawode,
ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or written
fyrngewinnes, syðþan flod ofsloh,
gifen geotende giganta cyn,
frecne geferdon; þæt wæs endelean
þurh wæteres wylm Waldend sealed.
Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes
þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,
gesteed on gesæd, hwam þæt sweord geworht,
irena cyst ærest wære
wreoþenhilt ond wyrinfah. (1687-1698).
Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt, that relic of old times. It was engraved all over and showed how war first came into the world and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants. They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise, drowned them in the deluge for retribution. In pure gold inlay on the sword-guards there were rune-markings correctly incised, stating an recording for whom the sword had been first made and ornamented with its scrollworked hilt. (Heaney 1687-1698).
This hilt records the slaying of the giants (giganta) yet itself is enta ærgeworc. If we believe along with the poet that the flood killed the kin of giants (flod ofsloh . . . giganta cyn), then there must have been a second race of giants, entas, who created the memorial to the passing of the first.3 In neither case is this the work of humans, but rather something larger than human. Theorist Susan Stewart identifies the gigantic as “infinity, exteriority, the public, and the overly natural,” in opposition to the miniature as “closure, interiority, the domestic, and the overly cultural” (70). The gigantic points to humanity’s insignificance; it is our first experience of nature, of place (71). Giants moreover “are not the gods; they do not inhabit a transcendent space; they inhabit the earth, and it is their movement through the sensual world which gives shape and form to that world, if not meaning” (73-74). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gigantic for Stewart is also the realm of the sublime, as opposed to the miniature’s “orderly and cultivated nature of the picturesque” (75). Whatever the contemporary audience of Beowulf may have believed, the gigantic has more power in Anglo-Saxon poetry as a metaphor. Some of those figures, like the giganta cyn wiped out by the flood, are an older but failed nature, but the natural, the sublime giant, remains, filling us with wonder and dread. Such “natural giants” leave their wondrous remains, reminding the men who find them that the spaces we inhabit have a past, however mysterious or unknown.
Whatever the status of the entas who record the death of the gigantas, their relic remains in the text as a souvenir of a time and place, left behind after the battle with the Grendel-kin in the monster-mere. Stewart explains that the souvenir “distinguish experiences. We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather, we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of a narrative” (135). On the one hand, this is precisely the function the sword-hilt has in Beowulf. It elicits the report of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother, and becomes the object that Beowulf proposes as the way the fight may be remembered. The engraving is also explicitly not about the fight Beowulf means it to commemorate; instead, relation to that battle must be allegorical, the destruction of Grendel-kind linked to the destruction of the giganta cyn, carried out by a Beowulf who must himself play this narrative’s vengeful God.4Any meaning, therefore, that the sword may have had for its original owner would now be lost, overwritten by Beowulf’s meaning.
In the creation of a souvenir, Beowulf undoes the past, denies that the hilt has any meaning beyond the one he gives it. Yet his attempt to propose the hilt as a souvenir of his deeds is denied by Hrothgar, whose advice to Beowulf that a good king spreads the wealth around (1748-1750) ends instead with praise for the bloody head of Grendel (1780). This trophy, and presumably also Grendel’s severed arm that already hangs on the roof (982-984), are the real signifiers of victory over Grendel-kind because they are unambiguously about slaying Grendel. Hrothgar prevents the hilt from being a souvenir because it is too unstable. It bears its own story, one that threatens to undo or at least complicate the story of the Beowulf-Grendelkin fight. Hrothgar preserves his people’s history, and his move makes that history unambiguous. In so doing, he rejects the “right” history, i.e. the Biblical history that the Beowulf-poet constantly wishes his story had possessed. Hrothgar’s decision to ignore the hilt is wise speech (wisa spræc, 1698) because it preserves, however temporarily, Danish identity, as well as the boundary between pagan history (the history of the moment) and Christian history (the history of the universe).
The boundary of the past has a different purpose in the mid 14th-century work known as The Book (or Travels)of John Mandeville. This text seems at first as unlike Beowulf as one could find and still be in the Middle Ages: it is not an epic but a travelogue, it is explicitly and fervently Christian, and its narrator is far from being “eager for fame,” writing instead to lead pilgrims to Jerusalem and all the holy sites before and beyond it. What Mandeville and Beowulf do share is a sense of being haunted by the past. However, where the “true” past is rejected in Beowulf as being destabilizing for pagan society, it is embraced in Mandeville precisely for its destabilizing ability. Mandeville’s concern for Jerusalem and its environs borders on the obsessive, in part from a deep devotion but also because of the presence of the Other so irritating to Mandeville. In his prologue, the narrator grows increasingly rapturous about the Incarnation, which leads immediately for Mandeville to the land in which the Incarnation occurred: “Right ought men to love and worship and drede and serve such a lorde [Jesus] and worship and prayse such a holy londe that brought forth suche frute thorough the whych every man is saved” (2). Touched by the presence of the divine, Jerusalem becomes a place where devotion is the clearest, where the divine presence was felt once and may be again at last by those who truly belong there. “This is the londe hight to us in heritage,” Mandeville continues, “for the whiche every goode crysten man that may and hath wherof shulde strength hym for to conquer our right heritage and chase oute the ylke trowand” (2), which is to say the those infidels who presently occupy Jerusalem.5For Mandeville, “knowing the way to Jerusalem” can serve many purposes—curiosity, devotion, conquest—yet there is no reason all purposes may not be satisfied by going there.
Once he has arrived—after a very long journey involving numerous odd places and a meeting with the Sultan of Babylon—Mandeville finds himself in a city occupied by Saracens, strange people who seem to “trowe so nere oure feyth they are lyghtly converted whanne men preche the name of Iesu cryst,” but alas “understand not the letter gostly,” and thus remain in error (41-42).6 As tolerant as Mandeville seems toward Saracens, he is nevertheless eager to convert them—and this is precisely what he does when he arrives at Temple Mount.
When he approaches Temple Mount, or “temple domini” (22), Mandeville sees many things at once, including the Temple of Solomon, the destruction of the temple by the Roman general Titus, and the failed reconstruction under Julian the Apostate (22-23). What he does not see, however, are the Muslim buildings that would actually have been there, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, the absence of which is very telling for Mandeville’s point. When he gets to the top of the hill—which he alone of all non-Muslims may do because he bears the seal of the Sultan of Babylon (22)—he continues to see only the past: the Holy of Holies, and two “hutches” or niches; the first contains a stone from which apparently will run water, although it does not at present, while the second contains “a roche that men called somtyme Moriach but after it was called Belet or the hutche of god wythe the rylikes of Iewes” (24). All the relics of the Jews, from the Ark of the Covenant to Moses’ staff to the Aaronic vestments and breastplate, were once there, although Mandeville is not clear if they are there now or remain in Rome where Titus took them. Belet itself, or perhaps the rock within it, has a history as long as the tree of Jesse: it was the rock where Jacob slept, David prayed, Mary learned her psalms, Jesus was circumcised, and John the Baptist’s birth was announced (24-25). All these things Mandeville remembers as he stands in that place, yet few if any of those things were actually present on Temple Mount in Mandeville’s time. Mandeville rewrites the past onto the present: he converts the temple back into its holier form, in his mind if not in actual fact. Memory becomes a transgressive act, one that lets him cross the boundary of Saracen possession of the Holy Land and re-map it for Christian history.
Mandeville’s act is thus the one that the Beowulf poet wishes his pagans had taken, that is, of accepting their place in sacred history. Of course, both these notions of “past” are marked by Christian history intruding onto pagan boundaries, but this may not be as problematic as it first seems to modern readers. On the one hand, this move is to be expected, because Christianity is the supreme medieval ideological apparatus, and its truth is the Truth that always wins in medieval literature. On the other hand, it should be stressed that while ideological content is important, the process of crossing historical boundaries is more important, because it is where we might find the utopian function. Memory of the past in Mandeville can undo the present, acting as what Jeffrey Cohen calls a “temporal short circuit” that can allow the reader to see the past “erupt with the intensity of an unanticipated future” (7). What Mandeville anticipates from the past that he “sees” at Temple Mount is a Christian future uninterrupted by Saracen presence; what the Beowulf-poet anticipates—and what Hrothgar rejects—is that same Christian future, which within the poet’s logic could have saved so many Danes.
Anticipating the future and desiring it, however, are two very different things. As the past is a boundary which may be guarded to preserve identity or destroyed to create it, the future is a boundary that also marks community. In Pearl, a later 14th-century English alliterative poem, the narrator, or dreamer, has a vision of a lost pearl that is both the precious stone and his recently deceased daughter. In his dream, he wanders among the woods until he arrives at a “crystal clyffe ful relusaunt . . . at þe fote þerof þer set a faunt, / a mayden of menske [grace], ful debonare” (159, 161-2), whom he recognizes as his daughter. Seeking to rejoin her, he proposes then to cross the stream that seprates them, but she rebuffs him, telling him that to cross this stream “þy corse in clot mot calder keve” (your course in colder clod must sink, 320)—no one may cross the stream while living. This stream is more than a boundary between the living and the dead; it is also a boundary between the uncertain present of life and the certain future of the life beyond.
The dreamer desires to enter heaven in order to rejoin his daughter, an attitude that the daughter in turn spends much of the poem attempting to remedy. The problem lies in the dreamer’s personal desire for reunion, not his desire for heaven itself. While either longing could be future-oriented, only one is a valid path to that future. Indeed, the dreamer’s personalized longing is problematic, which is why the daughter implores him to replace his doel-dystress (336) and þole (suffering, 344) with blysse (396) and mekenesse (406) if he should meet with her on the other side of the river. This didactic medicine exists not only to eventually erase the boundary but also to preserve its sanctity and meaning; if the living could pass into heaven without dying, what point would there be to life at all? The import of the daughter’s long dialogue with her father is that life must be lived, and lived well, in order to bring the future about.
The father, however, does not understand how his daughter, who was so young when she died (483), could have become a queen in heaven (473-474), a “payment” that seems unfair to him. She, after all, only lived for two years, and “cowþez [knew how to] neuer God nauþer plese ne pray, / Ne neuer nawþer Pater ne Crede” (484-485), so what might she have done to “fast forward” into her future glory? The daughter rebukes him, saying that while “in Godez ryche [kingdom] . . . is vch mon payed inliche [alike], / wheþer lyttel oþer much be hys rewarde” (601, 603-4), God takes all in their season (“of tyme of зere þe terme waz tyзt, / to labor vyne watz dere þe date,” 502-503). One cannot enter the future Jerusalem unless one is motelez (mote-less, i.e. spotless), which is a state only certifiably attained after one is dead (965-972)—and only through careful devotion while one is alive.7
This is not a lesson the dreamer learns easily, if at all. Faced in the end with a vision of paradise that matches the Revelation of John down to the appearance of the Lamb of God, the dreamer’s desire for that future overcomes him. Yet what matters most to him is not some anagogic return, but the all-too-human concern to see and touch his daughter again:
Þen saз I þer my lyttel quene . . .
Lorde, much of mirþe watz þat ho [she] made
Among her ferez [fellows] þat watz so quyt [white]!
Þat syзt me gart [began] to þink to wade
For luf-longing in gret delyt. (1147, 1149-1152).
The dreamer fails to learn blysse and mekenesse (or his proper place) and the boundary is enforced by God himself: “out of that caste I was bycalt: / hit watz not at my Princez paye” (1163-4). Here, as in Beowulf, the boundaries are guarded by the authority in order to preserve identity. Hrothgar stabilizes Danish history; the Prince/Lamb stabilizes heaven. Transgressions of these boundaries fail because the transgressors share a sense of wonder and desire that distracts them from the danger of their proposals. Beowulf is amazed by his ornate hilt, while the dreamer is amazed by the lapidary images of heavenly Jerusalem. Desire clouds judgment and leads to ill-thought-out plans to circumvent the boundaries of history.
We learn from Pearl, then, that, the process of “doing it right,” i.e. transgressing boundaries in such a way that they can bring about “good” futures, is that we need a plan. We see good planning enacted through Merlin in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, a mid-15th-century English prose romance. The figure of Merlin exists only for a short time in Malory, but he accomplishes much before he senses his impending doom (76) of being sealed under a rock (77). Indeed, his imprisonment highlights Merlin’s boundaries, for as a “dreme-reder” (12) he is bound by the future he has seen. Knowing what is best about that future, Merlin does all he can to ensure the correct future occurs through the creation of Arthur and the foundation of the Grail Quest.
The creation of Arthur is a fairly well-known story, in part thanks to the popularity of Malory in the modern age. Uther Pendragon, “seke for anger and for love of fayre Igrane,” duchess of Cornwall, is “done remedy” by Merlin on the condition that Uther “be sworne unto me to fulfille my desyre” (4, my emphasis). Thus, from the start, Merlin’s desire guides and controls Uther’s desire. Although both emotions are characterized by the word “desire,” it is clear that the meaning of the word in each case is different. Uther’s desire is his lust for Igrane, while Merlin’s desire is his bidding or will be done. Whatever happens next must be under Merlin’s control, and everything that Merlin does ensures that Arthur’s kingship will bind his community together. Once born, Arthur must be fostered in secret, and Merlin insists he receive the baby “uncristened,” presumably to avoid the paper trail that christening creates. Arthur’s secret fosterage, meanwhile, allows his later appearance to take on dimensions of wonder; to the people of his realm, he is an unknown boy whose ability to pass a mysterious challenge marks him as destined to lead, making his subsequent leadership all that more possible. It is Merlin who secures Uther’s word that Arthur will be king after him, and who convenes people to see the Sword in the Stone and Arthur’s achieving of it (8). After he has done all this, and Arthur has become king through his miraculous pulling of the sword, Malory announces that “within fewe yeres after, Arthur wan [won] alle the Northe, Scotland, and alle that were under their obeissaunce, also Walys. A part of it helde aynest Arthur, but he overcam hem al, as he dyd the remenaunt, thurgh the noble prowesse of hymself and his knyghtes of the Round Table” (10-11). Arthur’s existence and the strength of his kingdom are all stage-managed by Merlin, and come about not only through his “desire,” but also through a careful plan to carry that desire out. Merlin needs a unified England for one chief purpose, namely the achieving of the Holy Grail.
Merlin ensures that the Grail Quest will begin in a way that seems rather odd for a man who can appear and disappear at will: he arrives too late to stop Balyn from taking a cursed sword from a damsel, beheading the Lady of the Lake, and fleeing in exile from Arthur’s court (38-41). Merlin puts in an appearance only after this has occurred, and only then reveals that the lady with the sword was “the falsist demesell that lyveth,” and that Balyn “shall be destroyed thorow the swerde; for the which woll be grete damage” (42). But this late arrival is not accidental: Balyn has left the court and begun his adventure in time to slay in combat the knight Launceor of Ireland, causing in turn the suicide of Launceor’s paramour Columba (43). This act, Merlin reveals, is crucial, “because of the dethe of that lady thou [Balyn] shalt stryke a stroke most dolerous that ever man stroke, excepte the stroke of oure Lorde Iesu Cryste” (45). Balyn, then, is the source of the Dolorous Stroke, the wound from which King Pellam suffers for many years until Galahad achieves the Grail and heals him. Even by his absence, Merlin deliberately controls events. Knowing that the Grail must be achieved because of the great power it represents for all humanity, he creates the conditions necessary for its achievement, not only immediately, through Balyn’s mistake, but also generally, Arthur’s court being the kind that attracts the knights best capable of discovering and using the Grail. Unlike the Pearl poet, whose desire to cross boundaries is his undoing, Merlin creates boundaries in the present that ensure the future will occur as he desires.8
We learn through these works that boundaries in medieval texts are quite often meant to be transgressed. Every temporal boundary that exists, whether in the past or future, represents and ideological barrier: Hrothgar preserves Danish identity by ignoring Christian history; a Saracen future can be undone by uncovering a Christian past;9 the Lamb preserves the future space of heaven by limiting those who would try to get in early. The exception to this would seem to be Merlin, who is less the negotiator of cultural boundaries and more a “bounder,” so to speak, someone who creates that historical process, or perhaps stands for that process itself. In every case, however, the transgressive moment is the moment of what Ernst Bloch would call anticipatory illumination, that spark of consciousness that “drives world-figures, world-landscapes, without them being destroyed, to their entelechic limit” (II: 810). Alongside this runs docta spes (educated hope), which Bloch identifies as “the unfinished forward dream . . . a methodical organ for the New, an objective aggregate state of what is coming up” (I: 157, emphasis in original). The process of overstepping these boundaries, as well as the mere fact that we are told it may be possible to do so, is what is important for these texts. As Bloch reminds us from the start, “preceding societies and even many myths in them . . . may also provide a philosophy which has surmounted the bourgeois barrier of knowledge with possibly progressive inherited material, even though . . . this material particularly requires elucidation, critical aquisiton, functional change” (1: 9). The boundaries we saw in Beowulf, Mandeville, and Pearl are obstacles put in place to protect those in power; in every instance, here including Malory, overcoming those obstacles leads (or at least would lead, in Beowulf and Pearl) to moments that remind us of our own potential for transgression and the progressive hope that arises from doing so.
1 For an interesting and more philosophically nuanced meditation on the nature of time in the Middle Ages, see Jeffrey Cohen’s chapter “Time’s Machines” in Medieval Identity Machines, pp 1-34.
2 I deny the rumor this essay was paid for by the Obama campaign.
3 Here, perhaps, a distinction has been made between the native, traditional concept (ent) and the clearly Greek-derived term (gigant): the latter the giants of Genesis 6:4 (gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis), the former perhaps metaphorical or a known monstrous other. This is borne up somewhat by the fact that another mention of “gigantas” occurs in Beowulf at ln. 113, in the context of those races cursed by Abel’s murder. Moreover, Clark-Hall’s entry for gigant notes that it is found only in Beowulf and the Bickling Homilies (155), implying that this is a word with Christian overtones. Gigant, then, is the word for that race of Biblical human/divine hybrids; ent would seem to cover every other “gigantic” form that has existed in the earth since those days.
4 As Andy Orchard argues in Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, this identification of Beowulf with God would be a bit problematic, since it is clear that he shares far more characteristics with the monsters he kills than with the divine.
5 Although “ylke trowand” would seem to mean something like “true believers,” or at least “same-believers,” it exists in apposition with a later statement that good Christians should “chalenge the heritage that oure fader left us and do it [Jerusalem] oute of straunge mens handis” (2). Perhaps Mandeville is thinking “ylke” to mean “those who still believe the same,” i.e. the Jews, of whom he is even less of a fan than he is Saracens.
6 This is not the place to fully explain the discourse of “Saracen” in the Middle Ages; suffice it to say that “Saracen” in Mandeville seems to mean “Muslim” in a far less hostile way than the word is often used. In this essay, I use “Saracen” where Mandeville participates in that discourse, and “Muslim” to refer to the actual Islamic people existing in the Middle Ages.
7 Compare this notion with the alliterative homily Cleanness, likely also by this poet, which makes this point largely through a discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah.
8 I recognize that the Merlin argument is a little compressed and slightly tangential to the overall point of the essay. At some point, probably not in the dissertation, I fully intend to flesh this argument out into a little article about the unstable nature of the Arthurian community in Malory.
9 One might even say that Mandeville uncovers a Jewish past, although he would likely deny this, given his exceptional anti-Semitism.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. 1959. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight, trans. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1986.
Clark-Hall, J. R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 1960. 4th ed. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 14. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2004.
Finch, Casey. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1993.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
Klaeber, Frederick. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 1922. 3rd ed. Lexington, Mass: D. C. Heath and Co., 1950.
Kohanski, Tamarah, ed. The Book of John Mandeville: An Edition of the Pynson Text with Commentary on the Defective Version. Tempe: Arizona: Medieval and Renaissance Studies Press, 2001.
Malory, Thomas. Works. 2nd ed. Eugène Vinaver, ed. London: Oxford UP, 1971.
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham, N. C.: Duke UP, 1984.