Eileen Joy (ejoy@coastal.edu)

Coastal Carolina University

Southeastern Medieval Association Meeting, 29 Sep.-1 Oct. 2006


"The Shadow of the Blackbird Crossed the Wonders of the East, To and Fro"



Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
—Wallace Stevens[1]

Prologue: A Certain Kind of Language

In his account of the demonic possession of the Ursuline nuns of Loudon, France in the 1630s, Michel de Certeau wrote that “the imaginary is part of history.”[2] Certeau ultimately concluded that the demonic possession of the Usruline nuns “has no ‘true’ historical explanation, since it is never possible to know who is ‘possessed’ and by whom.” Further, “The historian would be fooling himself if he believed he was rid of that strangeness internal to history by placing it somewhere on the outside, far from us, in a past closed with the last ‘aberrations’ of yesteryear.”[3] Certeau understood that the historical method would always seek to exorcise this strangeness by attempting to place it firmly in the past: history, in his words, “aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present, and at offering them scriptural tombs.”[4] But there is something both repressed and nocturnal that always returns—a revenant that courses along the interstices of “tradition.”

What I am concerned with here is the sensual nocturnal imaginary—more specifically, the thirteen-feet-tall women with boar’s tusks, ox-tails, and camel’s feet of the Latin and Old English Wonders of the East, who, because of their giant-ness and their obscenity, are killed by Alexander the Great. Further, he kills them because “he could not capture them alive, because they have foul and worthless bodies.”[5] Given the fact that Alexander looms so large and kills so indiscriminately in so many other texts,[6] it is striking that in the Wonders, his physical presence is mainly confined to two brief mentions[7]: the first time, as the executioner of these unclean women who cannot be captured, and the second time, as the pardoner of a group of kings living on the left-hand side of an ocean whom Alexander does not kill because he was “amazed at their humanity” (“wundriende hyra menniscnysse”).[8] Although technically absent as a character, Alexander stalks the text as a kind of juridical supplement.

As is well known, the illustrated Wonders is an early pictorial catalogue, derived from Greek sources, of monstrous bodies that have become “the standard source for the continual representation of these monsters throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”[9] The Wonders has its imaginative roots in a classical past, yet also gestures into our modern present. Following the thought of Jeffrey Cohen, I would suggest that the foul women of the Wonders are “disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies . . . undermine the Aristotelian taxonomic system,” and they need to be destroyed precisely because they attract as equally as they repulse[10]: there is a dark and secret joy to be had in their killing. But how might we begin to better understand how this dark and secret joy moves, as an undercurrent, through history, and also stitches together disparate histories? I want to begin with Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as an imaginative structuring device with which I can begin to formulate a multiplicity of ways of looking at the “indecent” and “worthless” women of the Wonders, and looking is the critical term here, given that the Wonders is a text that invites a visual spectatorship, both through its illustrations and its accompanying text.

Stevens’s poem comprises thirteen stanzas built around thirteen compact aphorisms, each of which contains a different external perspective on the image of a blackbird, as well as an internal line of thought that emanates from that image, thereby giving us a multiplicity of ways of seeing and knowing, and the poem is ultimately about the capaciousness of inflection. According to Helen Vendler, Stevens was “almost medieval in his relish for external form,” and in this poem he constructed the blackbird as an image of the Real, “a certain kind of language” that “lies at the base of even our most powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity.”[11] Further,

our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes—the blackbird is ‘our line of vision,’ as it is our line of thought . . . . The blackbird is by no means all—it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow—but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of our relation.[12]

It is precisely this kind of perspectivism (and sensitivity to the multiple inflections of the Real along a time-space continuum), that we need more of in our cultural criticism in order to better trace, to paraphrase Nietzsche, the enigmatic and disquieting nature of the world. But more than that, Stevens’s poem is apropos to thinking about the image of indecent bodies of the hybrid women of the Wonders, because of the blackbird itself, which moves in Stevens’s poem between the poles of the concrete and the abstract, the moment and history, symbolism and thingness, stasis and movement, center and margin, beauty and terror, in much the same way that the figure of the perverse female body moves through our history by marking the edges of many circles when it flies out of sight.

The Latin and Old English language used to describe the hybrid women whom Alexander kills in the texts of the Wonders serves as an important starting point for analysis.[13] First, we have the Old English words used to describe the women in the Tiberius and Vitellius manuscripts: “micelnesse,” “æwisce,” and “unweorde.” It should be noted that the women are first condemned (and killed) on account of their “giant-ness,” which can be seen as an attribute of the whole of their persons, whereas the terms “æwisce” and “unweorde” are adjectives specifically attached to their bodies (“corpore” in the Latin, and “lichoman” in the Old English). It should be noted that the OE author[s]’ choice of “micelnesse” as a gloss on the Latin “obscenitate” is a departure from the usual gloss of “unclennesse,” which has the connotations in other Old English texts of impurity (moral and otherwise), foulness, filth, squalor, and most prominently, sexual defilement. For “æwisce,” there are the connotations of shameless, scandalous, indecent, and sinful. For “unweorde,” we have “of no value or estimation,” “of no merit,” worthless, despicable, bad, contemptible, ignominious, and disgraced. The Latin terms being glossed by the Old English are, respectively, “obscenitate,” “publicato,” and “inhonesto.” For the Latin “obscenitate,” the most typical connotations are inauspiciousness, moral impurity, and sexual defilement; for “publicato,” vulgar and common; and for “inhonesto,” dishonored and disgraced.

Although it may seem, on the surface, that Alexander’s killing of the giant, white-as-marble, and animal-bodied women lacks a sexual dimension, I would draw attention to the Latin term “obscenitate,” which is the first reason given for what would appear to be, in Alexander’s and the author’s mind, their necessary killing. This term appears most often in Anglo-Saxon literary culture in Anglo-Latin texts (usually glossed by “unclennesse,” or variants thereof), typically in relation to sexual chastity, such as in the Old English translation of Aldhelm’s De Virginitate and in the 7th-century Liber scintillarum, and in relation to bodily pollution, as in Leviticus, where the Old English “unclæne” also frequently glosses the Latin terms “polluta” and “immunda,” polluted and impure, respectively. It has to be admitted, however, that since the Old English texts substitute “giant-ness” where we would expect “uncleanness,” that a different set of connotations are being introduced into the text. Nevertheless, the terms “æwisce” and “unweorde” (Latin “publicato” and “inhonesto”), applied to the women’s bodies and given as additional reasons for their slaughter by Alexander, clearly indicate that their physical attributes are creating some serious species, perhaps even sexual, dis-ease for those who encounter them. And I say this because the Wonders is filled with bodies that explode the boundaries of what supposedly attaches to humanness, gender, and to specific animal species—from female huntresses with beards to people with two faces on a single head to men with lions’ heads to birds with the tails of cows and eagles’ heads to men who give birth. And yet, the giant women who have boar’s tusks and teeth (donkey’s teeth in the Latin), “ox-tails on their loins,” and camel’s feet absolutely have to be exterminated, because they are somehow too giant, too obscene, whereas the other creatures encountered are worth observing for observation’s sake and then left alone. To cite a line from a paper Dana Oswald gave at Kalamazoo in 2003, “their physical qualities are so alien, so perplexing on the form of a woman, that they must be killed.” The fact that they also have ox-tails that descend from their “lendenum” (“lumbis” in the Latin) also indicates their sexually transgressive nature. [I thank Dana Oswald again for this observation.]

Ultimately, the Latin and Old English language used to describe the motivation for Alexander’s killing of the giant women creates a kind of linguistic grid upon which the women can be symbolically “mapped”: part-human and part-animal, fully female because they are women (“mulieres” and “wif”), yet unfeminine (even, masculine) in their “giant-ness” and because their ox-tails would likely have been visualized as phalluses, recognizable in their “parts,” yet incomprehensibly obscene in their whole persons, their bodies slide back and forth between existing as objects of sublime terror and attraction. They are both homely and uncanny, taboo and invitation to transgress. Indeed, the very “untouchable” hybridity of their bodies simultaneously places them outside the Law and calls forth the Law’s corporal punishment, although strictly speaking, they have committed no “crime,” unlike the Donestre who, in the same text, beguile and capture foreigners by speaking in their language, and then eat all of them except for the heads, over which they sit and weep afterwards, a fact that actually lends them a certain humanity. The giant women, by contrast, are polymorphously perverse and polluted, and because they cannot be captured (i.e., are wild and dangerous and also exist in a realm beyond the nets of epistemology), likely provoke both anxiety and sexual confusion, and finally murder, which is itself a dirty, messy, and sticky business.

I. Among twenty snowy mountains, / The only thing moving / Was the eye of the blackbird.

Being a shameless “presentist,” I turn to the present and pose this question: how might the mutilation and mass murder of over one thousand Muslim women in Gujarat, India in 2002 reveal the fault lines of a certain type of “category panic” and sexual hysteria that is also present in Alexander’s killing of the giant women in the Wonders? Further, how might both episodes tell us something about the paranoia of the figure of the polluted woman in relation to masculine violence and murder as a kind of sex? Certeau has written that “strange things normally circulate discreetly beneath our streets” which reveal “an underground resistance . . . that has never been broken.” This resistance “infiltrates the lines of tension within the society it threatens” and runs along the circuits of social anxieties that, “Like scars that mark for a new illness the spot of an earlier one . . . designate in advance the signs and location of a flight (or return?) of time.” When this resistance “breaks out,” as it were, it opens “new pathways that, once the flow of its passage has subsided, will leave behind a different landscape and a different order.”[14] The massacre at Gujarat, I would argue, is such a “breakout.”

In late February and early March of 2002, there was a sudden eruption of anti-Muslim violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat that was partly a “boiling over” of long-simmering postcolonial tensions between Hindus and Muslims there. But the event was also the more direct result of a fire-bombing on a train with Hindu passengers passing through a mainly Muslim neighborhood on February 27th, in which fifty-eight Hindu men, women, and children burned to death. Waves of violence followed throughout the state, in which the attackers were Hindus inspired by the far right, the victims were almost all Muslim, and when it was over more than 2,000 Muslims were dead, most by being burned alive. Even more shocking, however, were the mass rapes and sexually sadistic mutilation of the women, in which, according to Martha Nussbaum, “The typical tactic was first to rape or gang-rape the woman, then to torture her [primarily by mutilation of the genitals with metallic objects], and then to set her on fire and kill her.”[15]

Although mass riots and violence against women are not uncommon in India, it is agreed upon by most commentators that, “The violence in Gujarat was different from earlier incidents of communal violence, both for the scale of the assaults and for the sheer sadism and brutality with which women and young girls were victimized.”[16] According to Nussbaum, the hatred of the Muslim women reveals something about “the desire to colonize the enemy’s domain and thus to inflict dishonor upon it,” but Nussbaum also believes that the “something different” about the Gujarat massacre is more connected to the operations of disgust, “an emotion heavily caught up in magical and symbolic thinking.” Nussbaum argues that all human beings “use disgust to construct boundaries between themselves and their own animality,” and “every society ascribes disgust properties—bad smell, stickiness, sliminess, foulness, decay—to some group of persons, who are therefore found disgusting and shunned, and who in this way further insulate the dominant group from what they fear facing in themselves.” Further, because the subordination of the group “is inspired at root by anxiety and denial, it is not a peaceable subordination.”[17]

According to Nussbaum, the Hindu right has crafted a rhetoric and political structure very similar to the National Socialism of post-World War I Germany, wherein the “idea of male purity has taken deep root . . . in a way that is unconnected to authentic Hindu religious and cultural traditions.” As a result, “extremists of the Hindu right exhibit an unusual degree of disgust anxiety, as manifested in a fearful, even paranoid insistence on representing the Hindu male as pure and free from lust” and “Muslims, in contrast, are the hypersexual, the other, the ‘black’; and Muslim women, like Jewish women in the Nazi era, are doubly sexual, beings whose fertility and beauty both attracts and repels.” For Nussbaum, this explains the prevalence during the Gujarat massacre of sexual penetration with metal objects, in which, “instead of murder necessitated by and following sex, the murder just is the sex.” In the end, “Sexuality itself carries out the project of annihilating the sexual. Nothing is left to inspire fear.”[18] One tentative conclusion I have regarding all this is that psychosexual dynamics and “the strangeness internal to history” can take particularly violent form in concrete political contexts. The Alexander of the tenth-century Wonders is not real in the way the killers of Gujarat are real, and neither are the obscene women he kills. But Alexander was real, too.

II. I was of thirteen minds, / Like a tree / In which there are thirteen blackbirds.

Placing the Gujarat massacre and the Old English Wonders at the opposite ends of history, and posing the question of how they are related—how they both reveal something about the fear of the polluted woman in relation to masculine violence and murder as a kind of sex—how might we also trace the various pathways along which masculine, but also broader cultural anxieties circulate between past and present monstrous, sacrifice-able figures, textual and otherwise? I would argue that the interpretive possibilities are limitless, but following my initial conceit, I want to suggest twelve more possible lines of vision for looking at the bodies of the killed women of the Wonders:

2. In relation to the final conversations between Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida about hospitality, a conversation that Derrida carried on for years after Levinas’s death: how are the women the figures who cannot be welcomed, who are not given hospitality? How are they the markers of the urgent question of the foreigner and what is meant by “going abroad” and “coming from abroad”?

3. Following Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, how does Alexander’s murder of the women reveal the original political relation as “the ban,” in which a mode of life is actively and continuously excluded or shut out from the polis? In this scenario, sovereign power does not, therefore, arise from nation-states, but rather, “the fundamental activity of sovereign power is the production of bare life as originary political element and as threshold of articulation between nature and culture, zoe and bios.”

4. How do the women inhabit what Elizabeth Grosz has termed the space-time of lived bodies, wherein “the subject’s relations with others (the domain of ethics), and its place in a socio-natural world (the domain of politics), may be better understood in corporeal rather than conscious terms”?

5. In what ways are the women the figures of what Slavoj Zizek has called the “obscene secret supplement” that the Law both prohibits and flaunts?

6. How are the women implied in Julia Kristeva’s statement that, “In the fascinated rejection that the foreigner arouses in us there is a share of uncanny strangeness in the sense of the depersonalization that Freud discovered in it, and which takes up again our infantile desires and fears of the other—the other of death, the other of woman, the other of uncontrollable drive.”

7. Following the thought of Jeffrey Cohen, how do the women function as the figures of Lacan’s extimite Other (the “intimate, excluded self”), “the restless presence at . . . [the] center of everything [the self] abjects in order to materialize and maintain its borders”? In what way, or ways, might the women function as the kernel of the Real (that thing that is always “left over,” indissoluble and inassimilable) of the genre of Romance, the one medieval genre, according to Cohen, “most self-invested in the invention of the mythically autonomous male subject” and whose “vast topography is the most fecund site for an investigation of dismemberment, visual fascination, and embodiment”?

8. Thinking about Edith Wyschogrod’s work regarding postmodern ethics vis-à-vis corporeality and alterity, how can the historicizing of the womens’ bodies help us to formulate an ethics where “the body as a whole, construed in a preliminary way by a number of traditional philosophers (Aristotle, Condillac et al.) as a field of tactility, can now be seen in its dual function as a proscription against harming the other and as placing oneself at the disposal of the other . . . .”

9. How does Alexander’s killing of the women demonstrate the fact, articulated in William Ian Miller’s The Anatomy of Disgust, that “heroic society . . . knows contempt; it depends upon it. . . . Contempt is what the honorable have the right to show for the less honorable”?

10. Thinking taxonomically, vis-à-vis David Williams’s arguments in Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, how do the women function as markers along the chains of infinite regress between what is supposedly orderly and human and what is disorderly and non-human?

11. Traveling to the classical past of Francois Hartog’s The Mirror of Herotodus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, in what ways might the women represent the return of the figures of the imaginary nomadic Scythians who represented the Other in the writing of Herotodus’s history, a history which had need of nomadic and eremitic figures without attachment to place? To quote Hartog: “Scythian practices, and the figures and procedures in the narrative that convey them, in the last analysis revolve around the following fundamental question: how is possible to be a nomad? What is this being who is so strange—even scandalous—to ‘us,’ people with a city way of life?”

12. And finally, how do the killed women of both the Wonders and Gujarat convey with their deaths the truth of the lines in Emerson’s essay “Experience”: “We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us”?


1. Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), pp. 20-21.

2. Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudon, trans. Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), ill. 1, n.p.

3. De Certeau, The Possession at Loudon, p. 227.

4. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 2.

5. Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 201. All citations and translations of the OE and Latin Wonders (titled Marvels of the East by some commentators) are taken from Orchard’s editions in Pride and Prodigies, which represent collations of the three extant versions found in three manuscripts (London, British Library Cotton Tiberius B.v, fols. 78v-87r; London, British Library Cotton Vitellius AX. v, fols. 98v-106v; and Oxford, Bodleian Library 614, fols. 36r-48r). All three versions are illustrated, date to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and were copied in England. The Tiberius MS. comprises Latin and English versions, the Vitellius MS. has only an Old English version, and the Bodley MS. is in Latin only.

6. In the Old English Letter of Aristotle to Alexander (derived from a Latin exemplar) which follows Wonders in the Vitellius AX. v manuscript, Alexander recounts to his old teacher his military rampages through India and other parts of the world, and does not hesitate to also recount the gory details of the murderous rages he regularly directs at his guides for taking him to dangerous and unknown places, even though he himself requests the adventures. In one instance, after a particularly harrowing night beside a lake, during which Alexander and his troops are attacked by scorpions, snakes, lions, boars, bats, rhinoceroses, mice as big as foxes, and even a poisonous white cloud, Alexander writes that, “I ordered all my guides who had led me into such hardships to be tied up and their bones and legs broken, so that they might be devoured that night by the serpents . . . . And I also ordered that their hands be cut off” (“het eac alle mine ladpeowas pe mec on swelc earfedo gelæddon, het hie pa gebindan 7 him pa ban 7 sconan forbrecan, pæt hie on niht wæron from pæm wyrmum asogone . . . . 7 ic him het eac pa honda of aheawan” [Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, pp. 238-39]). In short, the Alexander depicted in Old English literature would seem to delight in violence. Orchard has written that the depiction of Alexander in Anglo-Saxon culture was somewhat bifurcated: “. . . the Old English Orosius and Wonders of the East are alone sufficient to demonstrate that the two prevailing medieval views of Alexander, as explorer and seeker of marvels on the one hand and moral exemplum of pride on the other, were both represented in Anglo-Saxon England” (Pride and Prodigies, pp. 119-20).

7. There is a third mention of Alexander at the very beginning of the narrative, but it is an indirect reference to the “great monuments” (“mycclan mærpa”) left behind by Alexander in a city near Babylon called Archemedon (Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 184).

8. Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, p. 202.

9. David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), pp. 155-56.

10. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 6, 16-20.

11. Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 75, 77.

12. Vendler, On Extended Wings, p. 77.

13. As indicated in footnote 5, I am relying upon Orchard’s collated editions of the Latin and Old English texts, printed in Pride and Prodigies, pp. 175-203.

14. De Certeau, The Possession at Loudon, p. 1.

15. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Body of the Nation: Why Women Were Mutilated in Gujarat,” Boston Review 29. 3 (2004); available at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR29.3/nussbaum.html.

16. Siddharth Varadarajan, “‘Nothing New?’ Women as Victims in Gujarat,” in Gujarat, ed. Siddharth Varadarajan (Delhi: Penguin, 2002), p. 215.

17. Nussbaum, “Body of the Nation.”

18. Nussbaum, “Body of the Nation.”