Eileen A. Joy, Assoc. Professor
Dept. of English Language and Literature
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Peck Hall, Room 3206
Edwardsville, IL 62026

for: Biopolitics from Forest to City: Ecocriticism and Medieval Britain, ed. Randy P. Schiff and Joseph Taylor

The Dreamlife of Guthlac: Itinerancy, Bare Life, Hagiography

Figure 1. still image from Eric Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels (1998)

In her book Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago, 2006), Patricia Fumerton explores the literal (material) as well as the literary (metaphorical) status of the itinerant laborer in early modern England in order to, in her words, trace “the emergence of a new kind of secular subjectivity in the period, one that was not solely God-based but that could . . . sense a more modern notion of singularity and disconnection.” While this subject, in Fumerton’s view, would always be “socially determined, and in this sense, ‘subjected’ . . . the notion of such a subject also posits the possibility of a ‘free’ individual or detached self, even in the case of its actual or felt impossibility.” Fumerton is especially interested in investigating “the extent to which the straightforward ‘facts’ of lower-class mobility might result in a subjective interiorization of unsettledness,” or what she terms “unsettled subjectivity.” And she is also interested in how this subjectivity is represented — in the public legal records (the official, clerical narrative), in the private journals of the landless seaman Edward Barlow (the “low” autobiography, as it were), and perhaps most importantly, in the “lowly street literature” of broadside street ballads centering on the lives of seaman which offered to their “lowly” audiences both the assurances of “placed constancy” as well as “inconsistency and unsettledness at ‘no cost.’” Ultimately, these ballads marketed “multifarious, dispersed, and provisional identities” and “point us to a future study of lowly street literature [the spacious voices] . . . of early modern England, as much as to a new class of unmoored and global workers.”

It is partly my aim to argue here that the so-called modern romanticization of itinerant or wayward identity as a form of freedom, as well as the interiorization of “unsettledness,” is not by any means uniquely modern, although the Anglo-Saxon period from which I draw my thinking will not readily reveal to us a mobile working class of itinerant wage laborers such as the button-makers and tinkers who populated early modern England, much less private journals kept by the “lowly” denizens of these ranks, nor a more bourgeois secular lyric that appropriates “low” itinerancy. Indeed, pretty much the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature can be considered, for the most part, as the remnants of a “high” or “official” culture, and that means also, a culture that was decidedly not secular. Which is not to say there is no way to track what might be called the figuration of low subjectivity (the Old English elegies Wanderer and Seafarer, or saints’ legends like Mary of Egypt, certainly provide good places to start) — only that when we do find it, we have to understand that it is always constructed, always appropriated, always literary, and almost always situated in a theological metier. Nevertheless, in the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the life of the eighth-century Mercian Saint Guthlac (674?-714) we have a figure who battles demons that, in one regard, are merely stand-ins for the lowly Celtic or British fen dwellers whom Guthlac displaces when he decides to transpose himself from aristocratic warrior to Christian monk and then to hermit saint — all of which requires moving from the interior circles of Mercian-Anglian political power through the regula and doxa of Christian monasticism to an abandoned earthwork on a small island (Crowland) in the swampy frontier land between East Anglia and Mercia. This is the geography of the “midlands” where, in the narratives of the saint’s life, Guthlac’s body is subjected to continual assault by “terrible and strange old fiends” who are also the former “inhabitants” of “settlements” where Guthlac now lives (Guthlac A: ll. 140-41).

Although the hermetic life, lived in the wilderness, is one in which a hard and closed singularity is prized over a loose and open multiplicity, Guthlac’s hermitage is not possible without adopting the habitus of those who, historically, have been multiply displaced and un-housed across the landscape of a middle-land that is itself always migrating (from, for example, the arable farmsteads of the post-Roman period to the labyrinth of black streams and reed beds of Guthlac’s time to the drained green plains of today). These are the migrants and exiles who, always on the move and perhaps legally undomiciled, become the strangers and foreigners, the impressed laborers but also the “illegals” (the “devils”). Strikingly, in the Old English poetic version of the legend (where the watery and cave-like barrow of the Latin narrative has been transposed into a desolate and hidden mountaintop), this is made explicitly clear when the poet tells us that Guthlac’s hermitage is a “secret place” (dygle stow, l. 215) where God once allowed the “fiends” to live when, “tired from their wanderings, the accursed came to rest for a stolen moment” (Guthlac A: ll. 212-13). And in the first extended confrontational exchanges between Guthlac and “exiled kinsmen” (wræcmæcgas, l. 263), certain “spokesmen” for the “fiends” excoriate Guthlac for wresting their “home” (ham, l. 271) from them, and also warn him that he has chosen an impossible and even animal life, one in which no one will ever give him sustenance (Guthlac A: ll. 273-78). In its descriptions of the demons, who are also displaced kinsmen, the language of the Old English Guthlac A slides back and forth between the idea of Guthlac’s harassers as apparitions from an otherworldly hell whom God appoints as the saint’s torturers and as exiles recently evicted from their marginal dwellings who appear on their own initiative to claim their landholding rights and to warn Guthlac of the hardship of the e/stranged life (their life) he has chosen.

To be a saint living in the wilderness — to be Guthlac — is to be literally strange in the sense that Sara Ahmed gives to that term in her discussion of the relationship between identity, belonging, and home in her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, where she writes that, in the construction of the figure of the migrant, historically, “the strangers are the ones who, in leaving the home of the nation, are the bodies out of place in the everyday world they inhabit, and in the communities in which they come to live.” And the “drama” of the stranger, following the thinking of Iain Chambers, is one in which the stranger is “cut off from their homelands of tradition” and becomes an “emblem” or “figure” that “draws our attention to the urgencies of our time: a presence that questions our present.” But it is Ahmed’s feeling that “to take the figure of the stranger as simply present is to overlook and forget the very relationships of social antagonism that produce the stranger as a figure in the first place,” and this view finally “fetishizes” the stranger, in much the same way, I would argue, that the authors of the Guthlac narratives and Guthlac himself, as a fictional character, fetishizes the demons and outcast “Britons” who haunt and torture him. This ultimately produces what Ahmed terms an “ontology” of the stranger “as given in and to the world,” and finally “conceals how ‘the stranger’ comes into being through the marking out of inhabitable spaces, bodies and terrains of knowledge. To talk of the migrant [then,] is not sufficient. It cannot deal with the complexities of the histories, not only of the displacement of peoples, but the demarcation of places and spaces of belongings” or “dwellings.”

Here, then, is where I see the possibility of beginning to suture some lines of thought from Fumerton’s account of “unsettled” or “lowly” or “landless” subjectivity in early modern England — which also gestures toward the possibility of considering the increasingly partitioned “bare life” of global capitalism (think of the illegal trade in human organs) — back to the “incorporated” and utlah (“outlaw”) bodies and minds of an Anglo-Saxon hagiography and forward to the work of Sara Ahmed, Rosi Bradotti, Iain Chambers, and others on nomadic subjectivity and ethics in a late, transnational capitalist culture. Such suturing of these disparate discourses into what I would call a “deep” or “long” history might be necessary if we believe that what Braidotti calls the “embodied and embedded” nature of subjects is directly proportional to the ability of those bodies to aim for affirmative and joyful and not nihilistic and destructive processes of becoming, and if we believe further, in Braidotti’s words, that the “capacity to endure is collective, it is to be shared,” and further, “[i]t is held together by narratives, stories, exchanges, shared emotions and affects. It is neither equal to itself nor does it guarantee self-perpetuation.”

Ultimately, then, my essay will explore the relations between migrancy, the lowly “masses,” Anglo-Saxon “wilderness,” hagiography, and Old English law codes concerning the “foreigner,” in order to trace a certain politics of itinerant “bare life” operating in early medieval England. My essay title also refers to Erick Zonca’s 1998 film The Dreamlife of Angels (La Vie rêvée des anges), about two young homeless women, Isa and Marie, who work in the illegal textile factories in the economically ravaged and post-industrial wastelands of northeastern France, and who can be seen as inheritors of the “redundant,” outcast lives that secure the foundations of so many states, medieval and modern (Christian, secular, and increasingly, non-localized and unmoored from nations).