Strange Encounters: Andreas, Time-Knots, and Reparative Readings*

Eileen A. Joy

*(article-in-progess; started out as an Afterword for a collection of reprinted essays on the Old English Andreas for the Richard Rawlinson Reprint book series, since discontinued, and is now under reconstruction)

Figure 1. The Island of Dr. Moreau (by sketchbook, 2008)

For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the “we” except by finding the way in which I am tied to “you,” by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human comes into being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know.
—Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

The New World is always in the past. In “Decolonizing the Middle Ages,” John Dagenais argues that colonization of the past, in addition to the colonizing of other geographies and the so-called “primitive” Others who inhabit those geographies, is an “indispensable companion of empire.” With regard to the “overlappings among discourses of historical and geographical colonialism,” he cites the fourteenth-century writings of Petrarch on the Fortunate Isles in his Vita solitaria, especially the passage (2.6.3) that describes the native inhabitants as “‘without culture’ (gens inculta), similar to beasts wandering in a wasteland at once savage and oddly pastoral.”[1] Dagenais also highlights how Petrarch describes time itself, in his Africa, as “a sea voyage through troubled waters toward an imagined destination,” and it is precisely the metaphors that Petrarch uses to describe Africa—“darkness,” “barbarism,” “primitivism,” “squalor,” and “Lethean stupor”—that Europeans after him “will continue to use to describe both the Dark Continent and the Dark Ages. And as Europeans make their way across the Atlantic, they will use these terms again to describe the inhabitants of the New World.”[2] The project of empire, then, is not only about the conquest and colonization of space (and the peoples who inhabit those spaces); it is also a mapping and mastery of time itself.

Even the so-called Dark Ages had their own Dark Ages, and these can be glimpsed in the Mermedonia of Andreas, an island “march-land wound in murder” [mearcland morðe bewunden; l. 19] that is home to the “devil’s thanes” [deofles þegns; l. 43]: men (and we can assume, women and children as well) who consume the blood and skin of all “strangers,” the “flesh-homes of foreign-coming men” [fira flæschoman, feorrancumenra; l. 24], and who are in dire need of conversion by the Christian apostle Andreas.[3] In this Old English version of the apocryphal legend of Andrew rescuing Matthew from the cannibal Mermedonians, situated in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript (alongside other apostolic and Biblical legends, homilies, and a prose life of St Guthlac) that somehow found its way into a cathedral library in northern Italy in the eleventh or twelfth century, we have the enduring narrative of conquest and colonialism where, as Jeffrey J. Cohen has written, there is never “a time before colony,” nor has there “never yet been a time when the colonial has been outgrown.”[4] The Old English text draws upon an apocryphal New Testament legend (in Greek) that itself draws upon even older narratives in classical literature concerned with “barbarians” who eat human flesh, such as the cannibal Scythians of Pliny’s Natural History and Herodotus’s Histories or the Cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey, and who also reappear in other Old English and Anglo-Latin texts, such as Wonders of the East and the Liber Monstrorum. This is a narrative that is always set to repeat, and the endlessly intertwining distinctions of what is foreign and strange versus what is “the same” and familiar in these narratives is always haunted, and even collapsed, by the fantasies of cannibalism that, however antiquated we might believe them to be, are lodged deep within our modernity and continue to unsettle our notions of discretely bounded forms of identity and self-possession (personal, cultural, religious, national, etc.). Sara Ahmed has written that, in all strange encounters, past and present, “the figure of the ‘stranger’ is produced, not as that which we fail to recognize, but as that which we have already recognized as ‘a stranger.’ In the gesture of recognizing the one that we do not know, the one that is different from ‘us,’ we flesh out the beyond and give it a face and form. . . . The alien stranger is hence, not beyond human, but a mechanism for allowing us to face that which we have already designated as the beyond.”[5] For the Anglo-Saxons—their culture a result of hundred of years of migration, conquest, conversion, and assimilation, and under continual threat of hostile incursions from a variety of “those who come from afar”—the distinction between “us” and “them” was complicated, indeed, yet the past (in the form of the literature of other worlds, the East, monsters, the so-called Heroic Age, the Apostolic Age, and the like) could be counted on as a repository of figurations of those already recognized as strangers.

The Mermedonian cannibals, the Andreas poet tells us, only eat those who are foreign to them [ellðeodigra; l. 26]—literally, those who are away from their own country or “people” and somehow turn up in Mermedonia—yet they are also “self-eaters” [sylfætan; l. 175], as God himself tells Andreas when sending him on his mission across the sea to rescue Matheus, who has been drugged with hallucinogens [atres drync; l. 53] and had his eyes gouged out, and is imprisoned in the Mermedonians’ “heathen city” [hæðenan burg; l. 111], where he awaits his impending ingestion. The Mermedonians, although of the devil’s party (and therefore, to a certain extent, monstrous and non- or inhuman), are also just men (most often described as hæleða, or “warriors”) who of necessity eat other men who are like them, or of the same species. Yet the Mermedonians also see the need to blind and drug their victims until those victims are so out of their wits that they will eat hay and grass, as beasts of burden do (ll. 34-39), and thereby are reduced to “animals” of a sort. Matthew himself, speaking to God after being blinded, drugged, and imprisoned by the Mermedonians, laments that he has been reduced to the status of “dumb cattle” [dumban neat; l. 67] and asks God not to give him over to the “worst death on earth” [ll. 85-87]. What does it finally mean to be strangers, or foreigners, in a world where the poet continually designates both the Mermedonians and the traveling apostles and their company as ellðeodigra (always estranged from somewhere “native” or “home-like,” away from one’s people, exiles), or to be cannibals who only eat stranger-Others who are also yourselves, and perhaps because of this, have to be blinded and reduced to the status of cattle? In other words, if Andreas and his company are foreigners by virtue of coming to Mermedonia from elsewhere, how then can the Mermedonians also be strangers in their own country? Of course, I’m splitting some semantic hairs here, since both sides in this world (pagan-Mermedonian and Christian) are, to a certain extent, understandably strange to each other, and yet also the same. For the fictional Mermedonians, Andreas and crew are recognizable men yet also foreigners who, because they are supposedly “unknown” [uncuðra; l. 178], can be quickly (and apparently, without remorse) turned from rational humans into raving madmen, then livestock. And to Andreas and his soldiers, the Mermedonians are both frighteningly Other—“slaughter-wolves” at one point [wælwulfas; l. 149]—yet also “city-dwellers” [burgwaru; l. 1094] who hold councils (ll. 1093-98). And as the poet continually reminds us with his epithets for both sides, although the Mermedonians are heathenish devils and Andreas and his crew holy heroes, all in the end are also “men” and “warriors”—i.e., human and heroic (and would the Mermedonians be worth converting if they weren’t human and also, to some extent, noble?). Time is also rendered in this world as both Other and the same: the past is always that foreign country or rip in time that you travel to in order to both found and then subjugate a supposedly primitive and aberrant and terrible history out of which your own “civilization” emerges triumphant, and it is also the time where you always meet your own uncanny double on the shifting ground of a never-ending battle between self and a mirage of Otherness. And out of this quicksand, or whirlwind, of time, modernity never ceases trying to extract itself.

Everyone in their own time—contemporary thinkers with their premodern “Middle Ages,” Petrarch with his “Dark Ages,” the Anglo-Saxons with their Apostolic legends in the heroic vernacular, the mythologized apostles themselves on their evangelical travels in their Greek and Roman idioms—are all “moderns” of a sort who have need of subaltern pasts and primitive Others as a way of historicizing, legitimizing, and making legible the present. The past should be different—needs to be different and strange—and it has to be located, always, behind us, so that even when we see ourselves in it, we can say we have moved beyond it: we are no longer there, even if we once were, and we are changed, supposedly for the better. And yet, the very violent (and one might even say, sadistically graphic) drama of conquest and conversion, of cultural and religious difference, that animates the Old English poem Andreas is still very much with us today. We are never really after secularization, or after war, or beyond difference, especially difference tied to bodies and notions of race (or for the Anglo-Saxons, to gens, which is often tied to place), and one question for Andreas scholarship now might be whether or not, as critics of the poem, we can remain distant and aloof from its politics of cultural conflict and identity, especially as those politics are intimately connected to and articulated by the poetry’s art? The question is particularly pressing, I believe, with regard to the ways in which certain symbolic discourses of primitivism, cannibalism, and anti-Semitism are intertwined with each other in the poem and have also been pervasively conjoined throughout history, such that almost 600 years after Andreas was written, Jean de Léry could write in his History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil (1578) that the Brazilian cannibals were no worse than Jewish usurers who devoured blood and marrow and ate everyone alive.[6] And today, the “blood libel” (ritual murder) myth retains its staying power among contemporary anti-Semitic groups and even continues to serve as a troubling historical crux for Jewish historians.[7]

The question of whether or not we can remain aloof from the poem’s cultural politics is also important if we believe, as I do, that art both reveals unconscious structures of thought and has also played a powerful role over time in how we have constructed our subjectivity—our relation to the world and to other subjects in that world—and also if we can agree with Clare Lees and Gillian Overing that selves are “a product of both belief and history,” and “the geography of empire can be found in . . . the forms of representation that create” those selves.[8] Although there are some who will still aver that it is not possible (or that it is anachronistic) to speak of interiority or subjectivity in Old English texts, we would say with Charles Taylor that the modern liberal self cannot be separated from religious practices, such as prayer, self-scrutiny, and spiritual rituals that have contributed over time to certain “changes in self-understanding” that have been critical to modern identity.[9] And here is where I also want to tentatively put forward a more hopeful argument for the continuing scholarship on Andreas, because if art, or representational forms, have historically served to help articulate and inculcate particular subjects inexorably stuck, on some levels, in hegemonic power relations, I also believe, along with Leo Bersani, that the work of art has the capability to “deploy signs of the subject in the world that are not signs of interpretation or of an object-destroying jouissance,” but rather of “correspondences of forms within a universal solidarity of being.”[10] In other words, even a poem like Andreas, written in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England and deeply invested, in both its symbolism and more literal narrative events, in Christian propaganda and militant violence, nevertheless creates a field (semantic, imagistic, and otherwise) for the engagement of other possibilities, other encounters with cultural Otherness that do not depend solely on antagonism (or “war”) only. I will return to this point further down.

In his book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Dipesh Chakrabarty writes that “what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern and secular. It is because we live in time-knots that we can undertake the exercise of straightening out, as it were, some part of the knot.”[11] If we already have a body of criticism on Andreas that has attended to the poem’s “poem-ness”—its literary conventions and figurative language and style and verbal parallels with other Old English poetry, especially Beowulf[12]—as well as to its typological and liturgical elements, its sources and analogues and possible resonances with skaldic and other art forms, and to a lesser extent, its socio-politics, it would appear that the time is now ripe to revisit what I think is John Hermann’s important and much neglected argument, in his chapter on Andreas in his book Allegories of War (reprinted in this volume), that the poem, in its symbolic and typological staging of the more literal military Christian conflicts of the early Middle Ages, “reopens the historicity of the . . . rhetoric of the foreign.”[13] This is a rhetoric of the foreign that is still contemporaneous with us, part of the time-knot which we currently inhabit, where the Anglo-Saxon culture that produced Andreas is not fully behind us and we can see that what “gives us a point of entry into the times of gods and spirits—times that are seemingly very different from the empty, secular, and homogeneous time of history—is that they are never completely alien; we inhabit them to begin with.”[14] It is worth reflecting that in an era where the industry of literary criticism has been centrally preoccupied with unmasking the controlling ideologies of religion, Eurocentric humanism, nation, family, gender, and the like, that many of our students believe (at least, where I have taught, primarily in the South and the Midwest), in quite literal fashion, in God and the devil, angels and ghosts, saints and miracles. They are also very enamored of the grand narratives—especially violent and heroic narratives—that, ever since Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, we supposedly no longer believe in.

On a more global scale, ours is a time still very much marked by the violence of religious and cultural conflicts and the body, much as it was in the Middle Ages, is still a privileged site of political, and often very violent struggles (the ongoing genocide in Darfur is just one current example). Moreover, the terminology of the binary foreign/native is always haunted to a certain extent by the fantasies of cannibalism that, however antiquated we might believe them to be, continue to play a central role in our cultural imagination, unsettling our need, however illogical, to believe that the human body is a bounded, impermeable whole and that the cultures and nations which human bodies collectively form are also somehow pure and inviolable. That the human body is actually unbounded, open, leaky, and continually vulnerable to invasion (by other bodies and objects, pathogens, any substance we deem “pollution,” etc.) is an irrevocable reality that has given rise, over time, to many cultural nightmares, and as the anthropologist William Arens has thoroughly documented, whenever we look into (or imagine) the remotest regions of the world, we have seen cannibals: this has been true from Herotodus to St Jerome to Montaigne to Gibbon to Marx and Engels and beyond.[15] And yet, because we have seen cannibals everywhere, on some level it has to be admitted that cannibals are lodged more closely to home, in our own collective psyche, and may even serve as a screen for our own violence against others whom we perceive as nonhuman or as too different from us. It is worth noting as well that in an age that has mostly outgrown colonialist expansionism and which has also run out of hidden and too-remote earthbound geographies, much of our contemporary fantasy and science fiction literature (books, as well as television series and films) concerns the colonization and even consumption of humans by machines or alien beings from other planets. Historically and aesthetically, the line between eater and eaten is difficult to maintain and has given rise to a rich literature of cannibals, zombies, extra-terrestrials, and cyborgs seeking the bodies and minds of human beings for food, shelter, and labor.

In her analysis of Andreas in her book Cannibalism in High Medieval Literature, Heather Blurton argues that the poet is unable to draw a stark enough line between the cannibalism of the Mermedonian “self-eaters” who only eat those who are “unknown” and the political incorporation of Mermedonia by Andreas (and by extension, by Christianity), and she points to medieval theological debates over whether the consumption of Christ’s body during communion was literal or figurative (debates that Herman also attends to in his essay reprinted here), in order to delineate certain social and cultural anxieties that might have circulated around the processes of cultural assimilation unleashed by the Danish invasions of England at the time the poem was written.[16] For Blurton, these processes of cultural assimilation can be viewed as a type of cannibalistic incorporation best articulated by the lines from the musical Sweeny Todd, “The history of the world, my sweet / Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.” More pointedly, Blurton details how the poet consistently replaces the “pagan/Christian dichotomy appropriate to hagiography with the political terminology of foreign/native,” thereby “disrupt[ing] the hagiographic paradigm in order to theorize the cultural consequences of invasion and conquest.”[17] In this sense, the Anglo-Saxon poet reworks a New Testament legend of early Christian antiquity into a political parable for the present, one supposedly capacious enough to consider the points of view of both conqueror and conquered. But it may be that the early medieval hagiographic paradigm has always gone hand in glove with the articulation of political and territorial expansion, and it should be noted that tropes of conquest—of both peoples and geographies—have always been prevalent in Old English hagiography more broadly. As Fabienne Michelet has written, “the idea that saints venture into foreign lands and cleanse them is widespread in Old English poetry,” and she reminds us of the significant line from the Fate of the Apostles where Cynewulf “tells his audience that, thanks to Matthew’s preaching in India, ‘land wæs gefælsod’” [“the land was cleansed”].[18]

Michelet also recalls us to the moment in Andreas when, having been tortured by his Mermedonian captors and dragged along the ground for three days, “trees and flowers bloom where his blood has been shed” (ll. 1446–48): “[c]learly, the nature of the land changes when Andrew’s blood irrigates and fertilizes the ground.”[19] I would note as well that the poem is charged, from beginning to end, with the rhetoric of battle and combat and in our very first introduction to the twelve apostles in the opening lines of the poem, we are told twice that their primary domain was the battlefield (ll. 4, 11). In this scenario, Old English hagiography is as equally concerned with conquest as it is with conversion, or with conversion as conquest, and the hagiographic, spiritualizing paradigm of Andreas is not disrupted by a political paradigm: hagiography is already political, already about a type of warfare that is as much concerned with the capture of territory as it is with the capture of souls. That Mermedonia itself is already retroactively prepared for its occupation—and in the physical forms of the Anglo-Saxon culture that has appropriated the beyond of this early legend—is inherent in its very architectural landscape, which as Lori Ann Garner has shown, is a kind of “translation of legendary space,” which “departs at numerous points from Classical analogues and speaks instead to the Anglo-Saxon experience, reflecting in part the architectural reality of early medieval England while drawing also from an oral poetics surrounding buildings and architectural terms evidenced in Old English poetry more widely.”[20] In this scenario, the “heathen” foreigners are already familiar “natives” even before the conquering heroes arrive, yet they are also wild and monstrous enough to have to be subdued and forcibly translated, more fully, into the inevitable present—a present, moreover, built as much with poetry as with stone and wood, swords and fire. That the poem ends with a scene that seems to flicker back and forth between Andreas’s leave-taking of Mermedonia as an active, living saint and his burial in a ship cast out to sea, with a crowd on the shore lamenting his passage away from them (ll. 1706-22), demonstrates that the saint of antiquity has been retroactively “translated” as well: into the heroic time of Anglo-Scandinavian mythography. We can glimpse here something of the collision of difference and hybridity that marks post-colonial cultures, but which has been mainly unexamined in studies of the poem.

We can return, then, to the important question raised by Hermann as to how, pushing in the other direction against the grain of typological and symbolic readings of the poem, we might open up the question of the historicity of the poem’s rhetoric of the foreign (a question implicit in Blurton’s desire to offer a politicized, contrapuntal analysis of what she calls the poem’s cannibal “counter-narrative,” yet she does not cite Hermann as her predecessor in this venture). For Hermann, this meant drawing attention to the very real anti-Jewish politics and militant Christian violence operating within the poem and also to the ways in which spirituality and politics emerge alongside each other in specific relation to how the poem “constructs the differential category of the foreigner.”[21] Whereas for the typological critic, the foreign races of the poem are symbolic, in Hermann’s view, they possess “a worldly as well as a theological function,” and typological criticism should not be allowed to cover over the “historical residue [that] lingers in the presentation of the foreigner as monstrous.”[22] It goes without saying that typological readings of Andreas form an important body of scholarship on the poem (as the chapters by Walsh, Earl, Boenig, and Biggs in this volume attest), especially for the ways in which they have illuminated the poem’s symbolism in relation to early Christian theology and early medieval hagiography, and have also illustrated how the Old English author elaborated upon and therefore revised his source materials (made them uniquely his own, as an artist, or uniquely “Anglo-Saxon,” as it were). But it has to be admitted as well that readings of Old English spiritual texts that aim to shed light on their typological and allegorical structures only in straight relationship to late antique and early medieval Christian theology run the risk of uncritically recapitulating the official ideology of those texts. But the reverse approach—to see in the poem only what Hermann terms its “Christian imperialism”[23]—also means engaging in what Eve Sedgwick has called, following Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a “paranoid reading,” whereby the primary quarry of the scholar is the demystification and exposure of systemic oppression and hegemony, as well as the “exposing and problematizing [of] hidden violences in the genealogy of the modern liberal subject.”

In the practice of paranoid reading, there are no surprises because we seek to discover what we already know in advance: that the world is structured by power relations that dominate and oppress the individual (and perhaps, even more frighteningly, found our very subjectivity, in which case there is never a way out). In the case of Andreas, it means seeing in the poem only its Christian imperialism, its militant religious fundamentalism, and its sadistically violent xenophobia (all of which, admittedly, are present there). The unintentional “stultifying side-effect” of this approach, however, is to miss whatever might be “conceptualized to be just to the side” of the poem’s oppression, hegemony, violence, and over-determined subjectivity, “tangentially or contingently related or even rather unrelated.”[24] Against “paranoid reading,” Sedgwick offers the notion of “reparative reading,” in which we remain open to the surprise of a text’s possible effects, both good and bad. Further, the “desire of a reparative impulse is . . . additive and accretive. . . . it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.”[25] That such a reading of Andreas is possible is intimated by Andrew Scheil in his book The Footsteps of Israel, where he writes that, although in the hermeneutic of the Vercelli manuscript as a whole, Jews are “a vehicle for the hate necessary for communal bonding,” at the same time, “in the obliteration of identity encouraged by such traditions there was an inevitable, sublimated trace of hesitation, representing the fear of losing the self, a fear that one’s personal identity would be swept away by the tides of community.” And therefore, we might see in Andreas, that the Mermedonians, who also stand in for the Jews, “at some level represent the human cry for identity and difference in the face of utter, rapturous subjugation.”[26]

I would be remiss if I did not pause here to say that, in general, Old English studies have remained somewhat outside of dominant postmodern critical paradigms, including so-called paranoid readings, and it appears that scholarship on Andreas, regardless of Hermann’s prodding in 1989, has mainly avoided questions of how the poem bespeaks violent power relations with regard to issues of religion, race, nation, culture, and the figure of the foreigner. Given the very active intervention since at least the early 1990s of medieval studies in post-colonial critique, this appears almost as a blind spot in studies of Andreas,[27] and yet, I would argue that the poem, and Anglo-Saxon culture more broadly, could serve as ideal sites through which to investigate and make more legible the historicity of colonial or expansionist encounters, especially when we understand that the present is not simply the continuation of the past nor is it a clean break with that past; rather, following Jeffrey Cohen, we might think of historical time as geological: “It flows in places, hardens in others, irregularly, with frequent crystallizations (individuated moments of self-organization), drift, unpredictable movements toward increased or decreased complexity.”[28] And if we want to avoid the move whereby strangers are ontologized as figures who supposedly possess material reality all their own (they are “strange” and “monstrous” before we even meet them), we have to understand how they are produced in “encounters between embodied subjects [that] always hesitate between the domain of the particular—the face to face of this encounter” and “the general—the framing of the encounter by broader relationships of power and antagonism.”[29] Although some have assumed it so, post-colonialism is not a transhistorical, totalizing phenomenon, and history “is not the continuous line of the emergence of a people, but a series of discontinuous encounters between nations, cultures, others and other others.”[30]

Critical engagements with Andreas that would delineate the shifting and dynamically nonlinear historical conditions under which encounters between others take place, not only within the poem but also within the political and cultural milieus of the Anglo-Saxon world that commissioned, curated, and circulated the text, would help to further historicize and make more culturally particular Hermann’s initial foray into the poem’s Christian-Germanic politics, and would also contribute to the longue durée history of the development of regimes of difference and collective identity, especially as those regimes have figured in nation- and empire-building in different times and places. Moreover, such engagements with the poem would also help to illuminate the ways in which a continental Christian imperialism may have intersected with certain claims of Anglo-Saxon national (or, proto-national) identity which were themselves bound up with particular matters of soul and psyche. Given that so much of the narrative of Andreas is driven by extended dialogues between the two apostles (Andreas and Matheus) and God, as well as between Andreas and Christ, and Andreas and Satan, and also given that the Mermedonians themselves are a people whose “mind” and “thoughts” [mod; l. 140] are often “taken by the devil’s lore in the darkness” [“onwod / under dimscuan deofles larum”; ll. 140–41], the poem seems ripe for an exploration of the connections between belief, rhetoric, and the construction of interior selves alongside considerations of its imperialist ideologies, especially in relation to Freud’s insight that, “[a]t the very beginning . . . the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical,” and furthermore, this hatred “always remains in intimate relation with the self-preservation instincts.”[31] In point of fact, there are no Mermedonian cannibals; there is not even a Mermedonia, now or before. But both the Mermedonians, as imagined persons, and the fantastic, murder-wound island they inhabit, stand in, nevertheless, for the very real world that is often perceived as something outside the self and social community, threatening in its unfamiliarity, always a potential enemy, yet at the same time, so familiar, because dreamed and internalized by the human mind and ego.

As I read and re-read Andreas numerous times while composing this Afterword, I found it extremely challenging to conceive of reparative readings of the poem that might recuperate in some fashion its unrelenting rhetoric of warfare and hatred, or that might reveal, if even in the sublimated fashion Scheil intimates, a more generously imagined humanism. If cannibalism, in Matheus’s own words early in the poem, is the “worst death on earth,” then its perpetrators must be the worst people imaginable: inhuman, monstrous, and ethically corrupt. And yet, more than once the poet lets us know that the Mermedonians are not cannibals by choice: for whatever reasons, their country lacks meat, bread, and water, and they are sorely oppressed by hunger as well as the fear of death by famine, which has also ultimately twisted and perverted their minds. They set about the task of eating strangers in their country, not with relish, but with sorrow and out of a terrifying necessity:

Þeod wæs oflysted,
metes modgeomre, næs him to maðme wynn,
hyht to hordgestreonum. Hungre wæron
þearle geþreatod, swa se ðeodsceaða
reow ricsode. (ll. 1112b-1116a)

[Then they were possessed with desire, mournful in mind for meat, there was not for them joy in treasure, [nor] hope for [any] hoard of wealth. They were severely threatened by hunger, as that death-scather oppressed them so fiercely.]

Of course, this passage occurs immediately before the Mermedonians, desperate for food because Andreas has set Matheus and all of their prisoners free, turn without hesitation and eagerness on an innocent child, the son of one of their elders, as the supposedly best and necessary stave against their impending starvation (ll. 1114-37). And yet somehow, for all of the energy the poet expends on describing the Mermedonians’ moral and physical depravity—of which this scene is the chief exemplification—there is no act of violence they can commit that can even begin to equal what God himself is capable of unleashing, such as the flood that Andrew commands to pour forth from an ancient stone pillar (after his three days of torture at the Mermedonians’ hands and during which he weeps in abject pity for himself). This is a flood, moreover, that becomes especially terrifying when an angel of God encloses the city in fire so that no one can escape drowning. In the deafening maelstrom of water, wind, and flame that ensues (ll. 1541-52), the “wailing” and “wretched tumult” of “old men” is heard “widely” (ll. 1554-55), creating for the reader a scene of absolute devastation, terror, and human abjection. Although the poem itself would not allow for such a question, one has to wonder how an Andreas could remain unchanged—battle-hard and indifferent—by witnessing such a scene, but as a saint whose body can be ripped to shreds, then miraculously heals itself, is he ever really human? One wonders also how the Mermedonians, who were resurrected after suffering such a holocaust, could ever move beyond the trauma of their own violent deaths, but as cannibals who are also murderers, do they deserve such consideration? In such a zone of devastation, is anyone in the poem, finally human?

Being a shameless anachronistic comparatist, one way I want to devise a possible answer to this question is to conclude with a brief consideration of Andreas alongside a modern novel that has a lot in common, genre-wise, with the Old English poem: H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, which also includes a journey to an island in the middle of nowhere where certain barbaric practices are in full swing. The story is narrated by Edward Prendick, an English gentleman who ends up on the island after being shipwrecked and who soon discovers that the infamous physiologist Dr. Moreau has set up an encampment there for the purposes of vivisecting a variety of exotic animals in order to turn them into humans, partly out of curiosity to see if the only thing separating humans from animals is body posture, speech, and rules of conduct that can be taught (i.e., “not to eat fish or flesh,” “not to claw the bark of trees,” and “not to chase other men”). Similar to Matheus and Andreas, Dr. Moreau is on a mission of conversion (albeit, a decidedly secular-scientistic conversion), one which has to be enforced through violence but which is ultimately about the retraining of habits of mind and body. Of course, the experiment goes terribly awry and in order to turn the animals into humans, a lot of unnecessary physical, and we can imagine, psychic suffering is inflicted. At the same time, the supposed instinctual “savagery” of animals (such as their desire to walk on all fours, eat other animals, or attack humans) cannot really be tamped out, and without constant and vigilant supervision and the climate of continual fear provided in the figure of Dr. Moreau himself, the animals eventually revert to old habits, hunting down game and aggressively attacking the humans on the island. But it is also clear, in Wells’s handling of the story, that the savagery that Moreau wreaks upon the so-called “Beast Folk” is somehow worse than anything an animal might do by following its so-called “natural” instincts, because Moreau’s savagery is rational, scientific, carefully premeditated, and thoroughly human, if also inhumane. Eventually Moreau and his assistant doctor Montgomery are killed by their surgical progeny and Prendick is left to fend for himself among the “Beast Folk.” After discovering that “their simple scale of honor was based mainly on the capacity for inflicting trenchant wounds,” Prendick learns how to judiciously wield a hatchet and spends ten months “as an intimate of these half-humanized brutes” before he ultimately leaves the island on a small schooner that has drifted inland.[32] In the meantime, the “Beast Folk” revert to their former animal states, yet still retain traces of their “dwindling shreds” of “humanity,” while Prendick himself undergoes “strange [animal] changes.”[33]

Wells’s novel is fairly crude in its execution and its parable about the moral corruption of modern science is heavy-handed, but similar to Andreas, it attempts to delineate and hold in place a boundary that can never really hold: upright “humans” on the one side and barbaric “animals” on the other. Both the Old English and modern narrative end when the main characters—Andreas and Prendick—leave their respective islands the same way they came, but whereas Andreas hastens on his ship to cross over what might be called the heroic horizon of his future, glorious “battle-death” in Achaia (ll. 1698-1702), and thereby stays firmly in the fantastic and unreflective past of heroes and monsters, Prendick returns to the present of modern San Francisco, and then London, where he has a nervous breakdown and cannot persuade himself that the men and women he sees every day “are not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls.” In the library, “the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey,” and “the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses . . . seemed no more my fellow creatures than dead bodies would be.”[34] Eventually, Prendick retreats to the solitude of the countryside and to the company of books and the stars, in whose “vast and eternal laws of matter,” he finds some peace and hope for something that is “more than animal within us.”[35] The challenge, as readers of both texts, might be in seeing beyond the false dichotomies they each create—between familiar and foreign, same and Other, righteous and wicked, earthbound and heavenward, civilized and primitive, human and animal—in order to trace an affective line between, say, the wailing of the drowning Mermedonians, Andreas’s weeping for himself after being tortured because he believes God has forsaken him (ll. 1398-1413), the “exquisite expression of suffering” that Prendick hears in the howling cries of a puma that Moreau is vivisecting, and the inarticulate terror and dread Prendick experiences upon his “return to mankind.” What stitches these moments together is a certain anguish occasioned by the disorientation of selves undone by violence—a violence, moreover, that both founds our ability to grieve for others who are vulnerable like us (literally, “available for wounding”), yet also keeps each of us enclosed in a certain inarticulate beyond. And to allow ourselves to be seized, and partially undone, by such a beyond, even in the reading of a poem like Andreas, without attempting to overcome or master its difference, might be to move closer to being more fully human. And where the poet or novelist fails to comprehend or enact such a scenario, the reader and critic can try to make repair.

1. John Dagenais and Margaret R. Greer, “Decolonizing the Middle Ages: Introduction,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000): 431, 432 [431–48].

2. Dagenais and Greer, “Decolonizing the Middle Ages,” pp. 434–35.

3. All citations of the poem are from the edition of Andreas in The Vercelli Book, ed. George Philip Krapp, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932). All translations are mine, but I also want to acknowledge a debt to the modern verse translation by Aaron Hostetter, which he has generously made available online at

4. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 3 [1–17].

5. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 3.

6. Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 132.

7. On this point, see Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

8. Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, “Before History, Before Difference: Bodies, Metaphor, and the Church in Anglo-Saxon England,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 11 (1998): 317 [315–34]; Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, “Signifying Gender and Empire,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34 (2004): 12 [1–16].

9. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 206.

10. Leo Bersani, “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject,” Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 164 [161–74]; my emphasis.

11. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 112.

12. In addition to the important work undertaken by Anita Riedinger on Andreas’s relation to Beowulf (“The Poetic Formula in Andreas, Beowulf, and the Tradition” [Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1985]; “Andreas and the Formula in Transition,” in Hermeneutics and Medieval Culture, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher and Helen Damico [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989], pp. 183–91; and “The Formulaic Relationship between Beowulf and Andreas,” in Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle [Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993], pp. 283–312), see also the recent dissertation by Allison M. Powell, “Verbal Parallels in Andreas and its Relationship to Beowulf and Cynewulf” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2002).

13. John P. Hermann, Allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), p. 121. For an excellent recent collection of essays on encounters with the “foreign” in the Middle Ages, see Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages, ed. Albrecht Classen (New York and London: Routledge, 2002). See also Michael Uebel, Ecstatic Transformations: On the Uses of Alterity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

14. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, p. 113. For an important recent book in Anglo-Saxon studies that engages with Chakrabarty’s thinking on time, see Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

15. William Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Arens’ book was highly controversial when it first came out and remains a source of controversy; for further refinements to the arguments regarding the status of cannibalism as anthropological reality or largely cultural myth, see the essays collected in Cannibalism and the Colonial World, ed. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

16. Heather Blurton, Cannibalism in High Medieval Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). For the connections between medieval writing on the monstra (especially anthrophages) that inhabited the most remote corners of the earth, cannibalism, and the issue of the “consumption” and “containment” of individual and more broadly cultural identities, in addition to Blurton’s book, see also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Ruins of Identity,” in Of Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], pp. 1–28; Geraldine Heng, “The Romance of England: Richard Coer de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp. 135–72; Liz Herbert McAvoy and Teresa Walters, eds., Consuming Narratives: Gender and Monstrous Appetites in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance [Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002); and Asa Simon Mittman, “Containment and Consumption,” in Maps and Monsters in Medieval England [New York: Routledge, 2006], pp. 83–106.

17. Blurton, Cannibalism in High Medieval Literature, p. 18.

18. Fabienne Michelet, Creation, Migration, and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 176.

19. Michelet, Creation, Migration, and Conquest, p. 175.

20. Lori Ann Garner, “The Old English Andreas and the Mermedonian Cityscape,” Essays in Medieval Studies 24 (2007): 55 [53–63].

21. Hermann, Allegories of War, p. 120. For an extensive study of the ways in which the terms “Jews” and “Judaism” stand in for “a variety of representational strategies built into the very structure of medieval Christianity” (p. 3) as formulated in a variety of Anglo-Saxon texts, see Andrew Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004). Part Three of Scheil’s book, “Jews, Fury, and the Body,” examines the connections between the motifs of Jew, madness, flesh, and hunger, primarily in the Blickling codex and Vercelli manuscript, which includes Andreas, where, as Hermann illustrated in 1989, the Mermedonian cannibals stand in as both devils and Jews, and where even Christ himself, in a striking act of poetic license with history, refers to the Jews as inwidþancas (“wicked in mind,” l. 559) and fræte (“perverse,” l. 571), among other negative epithets.

22. Hermann, Allegories of War, pp. 121 121–22.

23. Hermann, Allegories of War, p. 148.

24. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 4, 18, 11 [1–37].

25. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” pp. 27–28.

26. Scheil, The Footsteps of Israel, pp. 281–82.

27. For an excellent overview of where medieval studies stand now in relation to post-colonial critique, see Nadia R. Altschul, “Postcolonialism and the Study of the Middle Ages,” History Compass 6 (2008): 588–606. For the history of the ways in which post-colonial and subaltern studies first developed in contact with medieval studies, see Bruce Holsinger, “Medieval Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and the Genealogies of Critique,” Speculum 77 (2002): 1195–227. For work within Old English studies that addresses questions of post-coloniality in relation to Anglo-Saxon England, see Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty; the essays by Nicholas Howe, Fred Orton, and David Townsend in “Gender and Empire in the Early Medieval World,” ed. Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, special issue of Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34 (2004); and the essays by Nicholas Howe and Seth Lerer in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya J. Kabir and Deanne Williams (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

28. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 7. For his notion of geological time, Cohen is drawing upon Manuel De Landa’s idea of the nonlinear dynamics of long histories: see Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997).

29. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, p. 8.

30. Ahmed, Strange Encounters, p. 11.

31. Sigmund Freud, “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915),” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1954-74), 14:136, 139.

32. H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896; repr. New York: Signet Classic, 1988), p. 190.

33. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, p. 195.

34. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, p. 204.

35. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, p. 206.